Healthy Family Communication

Unproductive communication styles can take years to develop, so that by the time a family really needs to work together to care for a loved one with a dementing illness they’re hamstrung by toxic interpersonal dynamics.  A family can have all the resources they need to provide for the person with dementia, but if they can’t agree on the right course of action, the person won’t get the care they need.  Here are some tips for having productive, respectful conversations with your care team.

To learn more about this topic, join us on April 16 at the First United Methodist Church in Georgetown for our upcoming micro-conference: “The 3 C’s of Alzheimer’s: Communicating with Family, Coping with the Disease, and Clinical Trials.”  Bruce Kravitz, a mediator with Elder Peace Partners will give a talk about how to communicate with family members and respond to conflict in a healthy way.  Call 512-241-0420 for more information, or register online.

Communicate Often

Often the primary caregiver ends up taking on the bulk of the responsibility, while other members of the care team aren’t as engaged.  This can lead to resentment, accusations, and tension.  The truth is that people have busy lives, and it can be easy for this issue to fall into the “out of sight out of mind” category.  Regular calls or meetings helps keep the person with dementia on everyone’s radar, and caregiving responsibilities on everyone’s “to do” list.

Assign Specific Responsibilities

Unclear expectations can also lead to conflict.  A family member may think they’re doing their part by driving the person with dementia to the store every now and then, but the primary caregiver may expect more.  This imbalance can lead to resentment if not addressed.  At the family meetings or during the regular calls, assign specific responsibilities to family members.  A conversation about a specific instance where a person failed to fulfil a responsibility will be more productive than general accusations that the person isn’t doing their part.

Listen to Everyone’s Point of View

Working with a family care team will involve compromise, which can only be achieved if everyone’s needs are considered.  People are more likely to compromise and meet halfway when they feel they’ve been truly heard and respected.  Communication breaks down when one person’s objective is simply to convince the other person of their point.  Here are some tips to promote good listening:


  1. Make sure your body language conveys to them that you are engaged. Make eye contact, position your body toward them, and nod as they are talking to let them know you are listening. Be sensitive to what their body language, tone of voice, and facial expression are telling you.
  2. Listen for the content and the feelings behind the words. People often talk about facts when the real issue has to do with feelings. Think about how what they’re feeling might influence how they think about or react to this situation.
  3. When the person has finished talking, paraphrase back to them what you heard them saying.      “What I am hearing from you is……”“It sounds like ….. was very upsetting for you.” This helps you process and focus on what you’re hearing from the person, and lets them know that they’ve been heard.
  4. Use “I statements;” instead of saying, “you never do anything to help mom” try to help them understand your experience by saying something like “I feel really overwhelmed and I worry that I can’t do a good job caring for mom alone. Will you help me by visiting with her on Saturdays?”


  1. Don’t offer solutions or advice. When we offer advice—especially when it was not asked for—this often shuts down communication. Problem solving may be the next step, but first the person first needs to know that you have understood them.
  2. Don’t criticize or make accusations. This will make the person defensive and turn the conversation into an argument.
  3. Don’t interrupt the person to correct them. When someone is talking about an emotionally charged issue they may overstate the facts.  You may not agree with what they’re saying, but whether or not you agree isn’t an issue in the listening process.  Consider what feelings may cause them to see the situation in the way they’re describing



Mayo Clinic:
University of Delaware:
BYU Center for Conflict Resolution:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

16 − 7 =