Before you start

This may seem obvious, but are you sure the person you want to visit is lonely? They may live alone but be quite happy on their own and might not necessarily want to talk to you. Check that it’s okay with them first.

If they’re happy to talk, arrange a time to visit that suits them and you. You could take along some of our free guides if you think they’d find them useful.

When you go, it’s important that you give the older person your full attention. Try to avoid anywhere noisy and minimise distractions like the TV or radio and your phone. Don’t go when you’re feeling hungry or preoccupied with something else.

What are you going to talk about?

You may have no problem thinking of things to talk about but it’s a good idea to plan ahead. If you’re not sure where to start, you could try some of these ideas:

  • ask for their opinion about something
  • reminisce and encourage them to tell stories about their past (but see below if they are living with dementia)
  • use topical events or what’s happening in the news
  • talk about TV or radio programmes –  for example, what sort of programmes do you like? What did you think of…?
  • try to find out about their interests – past as well as present.

You should be guided by them but try to avoid intrusive or sensitive questions, politics and religion, and being biased or judgmental.

How to be a good listener

You may need to lead the conversation at the beginning but really you’re there to listen. What you say should just help the older person talk. To really listen you need to be warm and friendly, maintain eye contact and show a genuine interest.

  • Avoid talking about yourself as much as possible.
  • Try to learn something new about them.
  • Don’t try to advise or solve problems.

It’s good to be enthusiastic about what you’ve heard but try not to talk over the older person. Summarising what they’ve said shows that you’ve been listening and you’ve understood.

Keeping the conversation going

Questions that result in yes or no answers can be useful to start a conversation but try to follow up with open questions. These begin with who, what, why, when, where, and how, and will help the older person to open up more.

You can also use positive sounds and gestures, like nodding, and words and phrases that encourage them to continue, such as:

  • Tell me more about…
  • Go on
  • I see

Repeating back a word or a phrase also reassures them that they have your attention.

Be aware that too many questions can feel like an interrogation.  You may have to be patient at first but don’t be put off if you get a negative response. If there is a silence, don’t feel you have to fill it. It can be good to pause and let the older person take time to gather their thoughts.

Talking to someone with dementia

Language and communication can be difficult for someone who is living with dementia. It depends on the type and stage of the dementia. They may have problems with recall or finding the right word. And what you say is important too.

Before you begin, think about where you sit – make sure the light is on your face so they can see you clearly and aim for good eye contact. If the person with dementia seems withdrawn, sitting next to them and making some small movement or sound may be a gentle way of getting their attention but be aware of their personal space.

  • Introduce yourself and explain why you’re there.
  • Relax - a warm and friendly approach is important.
  • Think about how they might be feeling.
  • Speak slowly and clearly and avoid long complex sentences.

What not to say

  • Remember when…?

This kind of question can be a reminder that they’ve lost memories. You don’t have to avoid talking about the past but try leading with ‘I remember when…’ instead. They can join in if they like and don’t need to feel embarrassed.

  • What did you do this morning?

Too many open questions can be stressful if they can’t remember the answer. Focus on the present in that case.

  • I’ve just told you that.

It can be frustrating to say the same thing over again but for the person with dementia it may feel like the first time. Repetition will happen. Try to stay polite and patient.

  • Your brother died 10 years ago.

A person with dementia may forget a past bereavement and reminding them can be painful. It might be better to come up with another reason for why someone isn’t there or avoid the subject.

Don’t use words like love, honey or dear – these can be patronising. Remember the person behind the dementia and use their name as often as appropriate. This can help their concentration and maintains their dignity. You can find more advice on communicating on the Alzheimer’s Society website.

Next steps

If you’ve enjoyed taking part in a Million Minutes, why not consider becoming an Independent Age volunteer?

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