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Talking to Dementia Residents

1 Contact Hour
Communication with Cognitively Impaired Clients (accredited for assistant level professions only)
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This peer reviewed course is applicable for the following professions:
Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), Home Health Aid (HHA), Licensed Nursing Assistant (LNA), Medical Assistant (MA), Medication Aide
This course will be updated or discontinued on or before Friday, September 6, 2024

Nationally Accredited

CEUFast, Inc. is accredited as a provider of nursing continuing professional development by the American Nurses Credentialing Center's Commission on Accreditation. ANCC Provider number #P0274.


The purpose of this program is to prepare Nursing Assistants to effectively and safely communicate with cognitively impaired residents.

  1. Describe CNA duties
  2. Discuss different styles of communication
  3. Define dementia/Alzheimer's
  4. Describe correct ways to interact with dementia residents
  5. Discuss tips for easier communication
CEUFast Inc. and the course planners for this educational activity do not have any relevant financial relationship(s) to disclose with ineligible companies whose primary business is producing, marketing, selling, re-selling, or distributing healthcare products used by or on patients.

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Talking to Dementia Residents
To earn of certificate of completion you have one of two options:
  1. Take test and pass with a score of at least 80%
  2. Reflect on practice impact by completing self-reflection, self-assessment and course evaluation.
    (NOTE: Some approval agencies and organizations require you to take a test and self reflection is NOT an option.)
Author:    Sandi Winston (MSN, RN)

Talking to Dementia Residents

Nursing Assistants (NA) have a difficult but rewarding job, especially in long-term care. The CNA can be in a nursing home, a hospital or in home care. CNAs are the "front line" workers, giving direct patient care. Because CNAs have such a close, personal relationship with their patients, they form LASTING relationships with both the patient and the family.

CNA Duties

Working with cognitively impaired patients takes a special kind of person: a person with patience, kindness and understanding. It is not always easy to work with someone who is agitated, angry or aggressive. The key to working safely is to learn to communicate effectively, knowing what your residents need/want before they can start "acting out."

CNAs assist residents in doing basic Activities of Daily Living (ADLs): helping with bathing, dressing, brushing their hair, mouth care and eating. When agitated behaviors start, CNAs must learn to control the situation and keep the resident safe, using verbal or non-verbal cues. CNAs communicate with many different people during their work hours, including the supervisor, charge nurse, co-workers, physicians, families and residents.

Different Styles of Communication

Communication is the exchange of information in the form of messages, symbols, thoughts, signs, and opinions (Aarti, R., 2009). There are many different types of communication, but there are only a few that are effective when working with dementia residents. 

Verbal communication is the most common form to use. It involves the use of words or sounds, spoken or written (Alvare, S., Fuzy, J., & Rymer, S, 2009). It is important to remember to speak to everyone with kindness, compassion, and respect. Do not yell or speak loudly. Use short sentences so the resident can follow directions easier. When working with dementia residents, it is the most important part of daily care. Speaking slowly, clearly, and face-to-face is the best way to communicate with dementia residents. Eye contact is very important. The tone of your voice can have an effect on the resident. 

Non-verbal communication is the way we communicate without using words (Alvare, S., Fuzy, J., & Rymer, S., 2009). Body language is easy to understand. Anger is very simple to display and hard to control. When assisting a resident, be careful how you stand, hold your arms, and keep your facial expressions as neutral as you can. If you stand with your arms crossed, you show anger. If you have a frown on your face, you show anger.  If you are standing with your hands on your hips, it shows anger. Always be aware of your body language. 

Always approach a dementia resident from the front. If you happen to start talking or if you touch them without them seeing you, they become startled and may try to hit you. Be respectful, and think about the reaction you may cause with your behavior. Identify yourself before speaking, and use the resident’s name. This will help spark their memory.


Dementia is a general term that refers to a serious loss of mental abilities such as thinking, remembering, reasoning, and communicating (Alvare, Fuzy, & Rymer, 2009). Alzheimer's is a progressive form of dementia that cannot be reversed. It eventually affects brain functions, erasing memory, communication skills, movement, and behaviors. Alzheimer's residents lose their ability to chew and swallow food. As residents journey through the stages of Alzheimer's disease, they become completely dependent on their caregivers. CNAs have to be able to be patient and compassionate while giving care to this special population and remember that they cannot respond like a normal adult. As the disease gets worse, the response of the dementia patient becomes more like an infant. They do not understand what you are saying and cannot communicate what they mean to you. The dementia patient is confused and easily frightened. As dementia gets worse, the resident does not respond to situations with normal social behavior.

It is very important to know the different stages of Alzheimer's disease to be better able to care for the residents. Not all residents have the same signs at the same stage of the disease. One resident may be able to play a musical instrument but not be able to carry on a conversation. Another may be able to read but not to feed themselves. The following chart shows how the resident changes in each stage of Alzheimer's disease (Alvare, Fuzy, & Rymer, 2009).

Stages of Alzheimer's Disease
Stage 1 SymptomsStage 2 SymptomsStage 3 Symptoms
Short-term memory lossMay forget family/friendsTotal disorientation
Inability to concentrateDifficulty finding the right words/following directionsApathy/total dependence
Irritability/rude behaviorRestlessness/wanderingConfined to bed/chair
Carelessness in personal habitsIncontinence at timesTotal incontinence
Poor judgmentLack of impulse controlInability to speak, except for grunting, screaming
Sleeps but gets night/day confusedSleep problemsIncreased sleep problems
Feeds selfMay need cueing to feed selfDifficulty swallowing, high risk for choking

The NA needs to pay attention to each stage so communication can continue. In stage 1, the resident may be irritable or make rude comments. You must not take anything the resident says personally. If your feelings get hurt, the resident will notice and continue the rude behavior. In stage 2, a lack of impulse control can make giving care very difficult. Good communication skills involve good listening skills. Look at the resident, see what their body language is, and respond calmly and quietly. Do not overreact to impulsive behavior. As the stages progress, sleep habits do change. If the resident is having trouble sleeping, use short "rest" periods during the day and keep the resident busy with activities while awake. It is easier to let the resident sleep whenever they want to, but remember, if they sleep during the day, they will not sleep at night.

Sundowning is a special and difficult behavior. It is when the resident gets confused at the end of the day. The cause is unknown, but fatigue may play a factor. A few tips to reduce sundown symptoms include soothing music, keeping the lights on, and having familiar items in the resident's room.

Safe Approaches

Communication is difficult, but if safe approaches are used, the resident will respond better and with less agitation. Always approach the resident from the front, not from the back. Sit or stand right in front of the resident to maintain eye contact. Keep the environment quiet, not only to reduce agitation but to allow the resident to better hear and understand what is being said. Turn off the television and radio. If the resident is in a noisy area, take the resident to a quiet area. Give the resident time to respond to you. Speak in a calm and gentle tone using short sentences. Do not use "baby talk," as this may agitate the resident. Use simple words they can understand. Only discuss one topic at a time. Speak in your normal tone of voice; do not shout or yell. Never contradict the resident, as that is a sure way to get into trouble. Arguing only makes the bad behavior worse.

When assisting with ADLs, go slowly and do not expect the resident to agree with all aspects of care. Do not ask the resident if they want a shower, but say, "It is time for your shower now." If the resident refuses, do not argue.

Remember to be aware of your body language, as it speaks volumes. If you stand in front of the resident with your arms crossed in front of you, the resident may think you are angry. If you have a frown on your face, the resident will respond in kind.

The following are some tips from the Alzheimer's Association on how to talk to dementia residents in a safe and efficient manner (Alzheimer's Association, 2009):

  •   Let the resident know you are listening; turn off the TV.   
  •   Keep good eye contact   
  •   Give resident time to answer   
  •   Do not argue or correct   
  •   Focus on feelings, not the facts   
  •   Call resident by name   
  •   Use short, simple words and sentences   
  •   Ask one question at a time

If these simple tips are followed, communication with a dementia resident will be easier.

One of the most common mistakes in communicating with elderly/dementia residents is speaking loudly or talking "baby talk." The way many people speak to older people sounds a lot like baby talk, using words of endearment such as honey, sweetie, and dearie (Williams, 2008). It is best to avoid using those terms of endearment. Always treat your residents with respect. Never talk down to them.


Caring for and communicating with dementia residents can be rewarding but challenging. NAs work closely with dementia residents and with patients in the home setting. It is imperative that patience, kindness and understanding be displayed. Learning to talk effectively with dementia residents makes the NA's job easier and safer. Remembering to approach persons from the front, speaking softly, and using simple words and phrases will make your work more pleasant, with less resistance from your resident.

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Implicit Bias Statement

CEUFast, Inc. is committed to furthering diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). While reflecting on this course content, CEUFast, Inc. would like you to consider your individual perspective and question your own biases. Remember, implicit bias is a form of bias that impacts our practice as healthcare professionals. Implicit bias occurs when we have automatic prejudices, judgments, and/or a general attitude towards a person or a group of people based on associated stereotypes we have formed over time. These automatic thoughts occur without our conscious knowledge and without our intentional desire to discriminate. The concern with implicit bias is that this can impact our actions and decisions with our workplace leadership, colleagues, and even our patients. While it is our universal goal to treat everyone equally, our implicit biases can influence our interactions, assessments, communication, prioritization, and decision-making concerning patients, which can ultimately adversely impact health outcomes. It is important to keep this in mind in order to intentionally work to self-identify our own risk areas where our implicit biases might influence our behaviors. Together, we can cease perpetuating stereotypes and remind each other to remain mindful to help avoid reacting according to biases that are contrary to our conscious beliefs and values.


Aarti, R. (2009). Four types of communication. Retrieved November 30, 2009, from (Visit Source).

Alvare, S, Fuzy, J., & Rymer, S. (2009). Nursing assistant care. Albuquerque. Hartman Publishing, Inc.

Alzheimer's Association (2009). Communication. Retrieved December 3, 2009 from (Visit Source).

Williams, K. (2008). How to talk to those with dementia so they can hear you. Retrieved December 3, 2009 from (Visit Source).