Communication Strategies for Attorneys Representing or Interviewing Clients with Dementia

ElderLawAnswers Podcast Episode 114

In ElderLawAnswers for Attorneys Podcast, Ep. 114, dementia expert Teepa Snow joins ELA National Director Rebecca A. Hobbs to discuss interview and communication skills that elder law attorneys should be well versed in and utilize when working with a client living with dementia. Teepa Snow is one of the world’s leading advocates and educators for individuals living with dementia. In 2006, Teepa founded Positive Approach, LLC, which offers person-centered training in dementia care and competence in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the UK.

Teepa begins the conversation by explaining that communication strategies with individuals living with dementia are unfortunately one of the most missed skill sets among elder law attorneys. She notes that people absorb information in five ways: through hearing, sight, touch and movement, smell, and taste.

Teepa explains that when it comes to sharing information with an individual living with dementia, visual cues always supersede verbal content. But when you have verbal content that needs to be conveyed, she says, “how you say what you say matters more than the words that come out.”   So, for example, if the person is not understanding what we are saying and we use an emotional tone that reflects anger, then our message will not be received properly. The tone overrides the content. To communicate effectively with an individual living with dementia, we need to start getting good at getting visual. Teepa suggests that attorneys utilize visual content and add touch.

One simple way to do this is the decision of where the attorney sits in the conference room when meeting with an individual living with dementia. Teepa recommends a “supportive stance.”  Never sit across from the individual with dementia. When trying to convey important content to your client, you need to sit so that you are on the right side of the individual with dementia, because most people (about 90 percent) are right-side dominant. For these individuals, the left side of the brain is more skillful than the right side because we are cross-wired.  The supportive stance allows you to look at the client, but also not to look directly at each other. Teepa suggests using the corner of the conference room table for such conversations.

Teepa discusses other important communication strategies for elder law attorneys, including breaking your message into threes, avoiding open-ended questions, and being mindful of environmental factors. 

To hear the podcast and learn about all these communication strategies, click here.