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Why communication skills are important in continence caregiving

Understanding how to communicate with a person living with dementia can improve the experience for the person and the carer.
Elderly woman in wheelchair by window staring outside
© Deakin University

Understanding how to communicate with a person living with dementia can improve the experience for the person and the carer.

Communicating with a person about incontinence or care-dependence can be awkward. It is no less problematic when the person has a diagnosis of dementia. Most of us are not accustomed to talking about bladder and bowel function. The way we communicate may need to be adapted to assist the person living with dementia. For example, we might need to use terms with which the person is familiar.


Having dementia often limits a person’s language skills. Damage to neural pathways in the brain interrupt messages getting through. Our human ability to communicate is something that most of us take for granted. Like other abilities, we develop the skill to communicate when we are young children. We learn words that help us to express, and therefore meet our needs for food, hydration, comfort, shelter, connection, companionship, and assistance. When people experience difficulties communicating or expressing their needs, they typically feel frustrated, especially if they know what they want to say.

Body language

We also communicate with our body. Our bodies and facial expressions convey something – even if we don’t want them to. The spoken word and behavioural acts are forms of communication. Emotions drive behaviours, just as much as human physiological and psychological needs.

Frustration is an emotion that can show itself in many ways – depending on our personality. We might disengage from activities and people. Some of us respond with anger. This could involve lashing out at someone – verbally or physically.

Others give up because of a sense of powerlessness. Some problem solve a way to deal with the source of the frustration. Unfortunately, dementia not only limits a person’s language skills, it also often limits their ability to problem-solve.

Some communication styles are more effective than others

People living with dementia find some forms of communication more acceptable than others. This is no less true for people without a diagnosis of dementia.

The ‘Good communication tips’ video by Dementia Australia focuses on helpful approaches to communication with a person living with dementia and offers several examples. While this video does not specifically address communication about continence care, the insights will help you develop effective communication strategies.

Dementia Australia also has a useful resource that describes the common changes in communication with dementia, tips on how to aid effective communication, what not to do, and tips from a person living with dementia.

Your task

Reflect on a time you were unable to communicate effectively. How did you feel and how did you respond?

Watch the Dementia Australia video on good communication tips (4.58 min).

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Think about the last time someone spoke to you harshly or made you feel as if you didn’t matter. Then compare this with a conversation where felt the other person listened to you and valued what you had to say.

What were the differences in communication style that made the difference in how you felt?

© Deakin University
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Caregiving, Dementia, and Incontinence

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