How to Respond to Strangers with Dementia

Dementia is a disease that has a different effect on each individual, requiring individual responses to behaviors or actions. While there is a right and wrong way to interact with those dealing with dementia, it is important to address each individual comfortably and appropriately. This approach is difficult, especially when you encounter strangers with dementia. However, you can still meaningfully communicate and treat the person with dignity and care.

Have the Right Mindset

Before you can successfully interact with an individual dealing with dementia, you need to have the right mindset. This means understanding the nature of the condition and the lack of control an individual has when exhibiting the symptoms. People don’t act or behave that way because they want to. Remind yourself that this is a condition and not a choice. By having the right frame of mind when responding to dementia patients, you are more likely to demonstrate patience and empathy even when the situation is challenging. Here are five strategies for responding to strangers with dementia.

1. Identify the Signs

When dealing with strangers with dementia, you may not be aware that the disease causes their condition. Being familiar with the signs of the situation and the triggers that can make them worse allows you to choose an appropriate response or interaction. The changes going on in the brain can lead to the following symptoms:

  • Distorted reality (delusions)
  • Hearing, seeing, or smelling something that isn’t there (hallucinations)
  • Angry outbursts
  • Wandering
  • Struggling to find words
  • Getting lost or losing their sense of direction
  • Difficulty understanding directions

Caregivers are the ones who most often recognize the signs of dementia, but it is possible that while out at the park or moving through your daily life, you may encounter someone exhibiting some of these signs.

2. Be Alert and Assess the Situation

When you encounter an individual who seems to exhibit common signs of dementia or memory loss, the first step you should take is to evaluate the situation. By barging in to correct or coerce an individual into a desired behavior will only make the incident worse and cause the situation to escalate. Observe the person and see if there is any threat of immediate danger for themselves or anyone else in the area. If you feel that the individual is a safety concern, make a judgment call to notify the authorities.

3. Choose Your Tone and Words Carefully

The person you are speaking to may not be able to process what you say the way you intend, so it is best to carefully choose both your tone and words. A neutral tone that is calm and supported by a smile can do a lot to diffuse a potential defensive response. Avoid being judgmental or critical of individuals, even if they are doing something wrong. Use simple language and nonverbal gestures and responses while talking to the individual. Speak slowly, and talk about one thing at a time. Engage them through eye contact and an open posture.

4. Put the Emphasis on Listening

Dementia patients are often in their own world, and trying to pull them back from it can make matters worse. Don’t try to stop their conversation or rush them toward an answer. If they are struggling to find words, give them a few moments and nod encouragingly. You can get further by listening and responding when there is a natural pause in their conversation. Listening is non-threatening, and you can diffuse tensions by showing you are there for them rather than there to stop them.

5. Provide Personal Space

There are times when the condition will cause an individual to be aggressive or have verbal outbursts. If you find yourself around an individual who is being aggressive, physically intervening could only escalate the situation to further violence. People with dementia struggle with their emotions, but heightened levels of anger could indicate the individual is struggling with physical pain, frustration, reaction to medications, or an unfamiliar environment. Give the person plenty of personal space while you calmly attempt to help.

Cornering the individual or making them feel threatened can cause the aggression to worsen, so it is best to engage through supportive and non-threatening conversation. Never move behind the individual or touch them. Try to redirect their focus to a lighter conversation or engage them by introducing yourself and asking for their name. Provide personal space but remain alert to the possibility that their safety or someone else’s may be in jeopardy.

Know the Options

If you have a friend or family member dealing with dementia, Caring Places Management offers a residential living facility specifically for those experiencing memory loss. In this caring environment, individuals find companionship, brain-engaging activities, security, and life enrichment activities as they make their journey through the illness.

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Before you can successfully interact with an individual dealing with dementia, you need to have the right mindset. This means understanding the nature of the condition.

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