How does being bilingual affect someone with dementia?

How does being bilingual affect someone with dementia?

According to the 2020 Census, over 27 percent of Australians were born overseas – many of them older Australians who speak more than one language.

The good news is that research suggests being bilingual can delay the symptoms of dementia. Older people who speak more than one language build up more cognitive reserve, making their brain more resilient to changes.

But on the other hand, being bilingual – or having a family member who is bilingual – can make dementia a more complex or even distressing experience for everyone.

Millions of migrants all over the world experience dementia in a unique way because of their bilingualism.

One of the common symptoms of dementia is language loss, along with impaired memory function and perception of time. People with dementia often live in the past. For some migrants, this may mean reverting to their first language while losing the ability to speak the language they learned in their adopted country.

This can create a difficult situation for everyone involved. The person living with dementia may feel frustrated, lonely and misunderstood. Language is a fundamental part of being human and connecting with others. If people can’t understand what you are saying, it can lead to isolation and confusion.

Loved ones and family members can also find the situation challenging, especially if they are only able to speak to their parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle in their learned language. For example, a person may have migrated to Australia from Vietnam, learned English, and raised English-speaking children who are unable to speak Vietnamese. If a family member loses the ability to speak English, there can be a sense of grief and frustration as loved ones find themselves unable to communicate with their own family member.

What you can do to help

Bilingualism can create unique challenges for people living with dementia, but there are ways you can still be there for your loved one and provide plenty of support.

Choose a care provider who speaks their language

Being able to communicate with your carer, even in a limited way, can really help someone feel understood and connected. It can also make it easier to care for your loved one’s needs, and support family members who don’t speak their loved one’s first language.

Dementia Caring provides culturally appropriate care services for people from a wide range of backgrounds. Across Australia, we have teams of carers who are able to speak languages other than English. To chat to someone about how we can help you or your loved one, please get in touch.

Try non-verbal communication

Non-verbal communication can be helpful if your loved one has reverted to their first language. Using pictures, symbols or hand gestures can help them communicate their needs, thoughts and feelings. Visual prompts, such as pictures of what someone might like to eat for breakfast or different activity options, can also help.

For more ideas, try chatting to your loved one’s care provider. By working collaboratively, you help your loved one feel safe and connected.

Explore other forms of creative expression

There are many other ways we can enjoy expressing themselves outside of spoken language. Some non-verbal activities the person may enjoy are drawing, arts and crafts, dancing and body movement, or singing (even without words!).

Music can also be especially beneficial. Studies show that listening to a favourite piece of music has emotional and behavioural benefits for people living with different types of dementia, as it taps into key areas of the brain that are relatively undamaged by the disease.

provide plenty of non-verbal reassurance

The way we position our bodies and faces says a lot to a person, even before you use any words. When you communicate with your loved one, think about making good amounts of eye contact, and expressing reassurance in your facial expression and body language.

Touch can also be a powerful way to connect with someone and help them feel safe. If they are comfortable with physical contact, holding a person’s hand, touching them on the shoulder or putting your arm around them can show them affection without the need for words.

Take care of yourself

Caring for someone with dementia when you don’t speak their language can be an overwhelming experience. Make sure you take enough breaks and have time out to recharge your batteries. If you need to discuss respite care, please get in touch – we’re happy to help.

It’s also a good idea to have someone you can share the burden with. Losing the ability to communicate with a loved one can be a difficult experience. Having someone you can talk to is a good way to get emotional support when you need it.

Dementia Caring provides compassionate care for people with dementia, from all backgrounds. Our multicultural teams are highly experienced at providing individualised care that meets each person’s unique needs. For more information, please get in touch.

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