Health & Fitness

Finding new ways to communicate when parent has dementia

Q. I have never been much of a conversationalist, but now that my mom has dementia, I find I am at a loss. I would like to keep pleasant conversation going, but often I run out of things to say — especially when the conversation is so one-sided. I would appreciate it if you could give me some conversation topics (we talk about the past a lot) and ways to keep it going.

Robin F., Tampa, Jacksonville

A. I know all too well how challenging it can be to keep the conversation going with someone who is cognitively impaired. I remember suggesting to my father that instead of watching television together, we just talk. His response? “Great, you go first.”

I should have taken the wise advice of Rebecca Mandler, a licensed clinical social worker in South Miami:

"Conversing isn’t always necessary; silence is often OK as well,” she said. “Engaging in a joint activity such as gardening or pet care (even if one is more of a spectator) is beneficial, and ongoing commentary regarding the activity is useful. Also, reading aloud from a newspaper or book, or just listening to music can be enjoyable for both of you.”

I can tell you firsthand that sharing memories over family photos and even old school yearbooks can be fun as well. I remember having some good laughs with my father as he told stories prompted by pictures in his own high school yearbook. And we chuckled at the fashions and hairstyles in my yearbooks from the ’70s. Those times together have turned out to be my favorite memories of his last years.

You may also want to make new memories with your mother through a new activity such as scrapbooking, trying a new recipe or planting an herb garden. Better yet, get tickets to an afternoon concert or “classic’’ movie that she'll enjoy or treat her to afternoon tea at a nice hotel.

Nancy Stein, Ph.D., is the founder of, a local caregiver advisory and referral service for South Florida seniors and their families. You can contact her at