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Signs, symbols and texts

Contact and communication

"Understanding written words is a bit difficult for me now. Signs are easier but sometimes the signs on toilet doors don’t make any sense to me. They are too abstract." (Mary)

"I used to leave reminders on the fridge door for my mother, e.g. don’t forget your dentist’s appointment, Jack is visiting on Tuesday etc. I checked that she could read them but she still forgot about appointments and visits. Eventually, I realised that although she has no problem reading aloud what someone has written, she doesn’t have the faintest idea what the words mean. Now I tend to telephone her if there is anything important." (Rita)

In every day life, a great deal of information is communicated through signs, symbols and written texts e.g. labels on food packages, road signs, toilet doors, exits and entrances, newspapers, books, computers, bills, washing labels and menus etc. Often, signs and symbols are mixed with written text. People with dementia may have difficulty interpreting some of these signs. This is not always obvious to outsiders who may take it for granted that they have understood the message simply because they appear to have seen it. On the other hand, the use of signs, symbols and written texts can be extremely helpful. For example, a written message can be a useful reminder for someone especially in the early stages. Similarly, a person who has difficulty reading may find it helpful to see an image e.g. a photo, picture, sign or symbol.

For the person with dementia

  • Find out what works best for you
  • Let people know which kinds of messages and signs are easier or more difficult for you to understand.
  • Regarding signs in public places, ask someone what is written or what a sign means (e.g. which door leads to the gents’ toilets if you are a man).
  • Don’t be embarrassed about asking strangers for help.

For the carer

  • Bear in mind that the ability of the person with dementia to understand various signs, symbols and text may change over time.
  • Don’t take it for granted that because a person can read a message, they can also understand it. The two processes are very different.
  • The person with dementia may be able to sign their name long after they have lost the ability to write. This could be problematic as they may sign cheques or documents that they do not understand.
  • Help the person with dementia to compensate for losses e.g. by reading to them, using colour coding or other visual cues etc.



Last Updated: Friday 11 September 2009