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4 Tips for improving communication with loved ones who have Alzheimer's

Michelle Seitzer | 7 Minute Read

Imagine the stress of losing the words and names that once came so quickly and naturally to you. Then imagine the stress of people constantly asking you, “Don’t you remember?” with a tone that usually signifies you’ve done something wrong.

As a caregiver, it is heartbreaking to witness these losses, to have the person you love not remember your name. But think about how heartbreaking it is for the person with dementia. We don’t know what they’re thinking. We don’t know if your Dad remembers your name but just can’t retrieve the letters or sounds, to put them in the right order. We don’t know if Mom recognizes your face and just can’t physically speak your name.

With so many unknowns, and as the brain continues to change during the course of the disease process, communication becomes extremely challenging, frustrating, upsetting to both of you. The best place to begin is with this compassionate point of view — and maintain that compassion in all your interactions.

If you are caring for or regularly visiting someone with dementia, here are four tips for improving communication and conversation:

1. Simplify your speech. The more words you use, the more chance there is for confusion or for the person to feel overwhelmed and stressed about sorting through them all. This is not to say you should speak to them like a parent to a child, but be more intentional about simplifying your language. For example, if you want to ask them to choose between watching a movie or playing a card game, you can just say, “Movie, or cards?” instead of “Would you like to watch ‘Singing in the Rain’ or would you like to play solitaire?”

2. Slow down. Again, you don’t need to speak to your loved one as if he is a child, nor do you have to speak loudly as if they are       hearing impaired. This is more about the pace and cadence of your speech and conversation. If you ask a question, give them time to respond. Don’t make them feel rushed or pressured. When you’re telling a story about the grandchildren, or a new project at work, keep your language simple and move at a slower pace.

3. Watch for nonverbal cues. If the person appears distressed, anxious, or uncomfortable with the conversation, take a break. Connect by holding hands, or sitting in silence together, or playing some soothing music. There are times when communication with words will be overwhelming and stressful. Be sensitive to those times and take the opportunity to communicate in other ways, through smiles, caring looks, and reassuring touches.

4. Use alternative methods. Get a whiteboard and marker, or pen and paper. Some may still be able to communicate through written language and will feel empowered by this means of communication when spoken words fail them.

Above all, don’t get discouraged — or take their lack of communication personally. If your loved one seems frustrated, even if she can’t say so, she’s obviously trying to communicate something. Be thankful for those efforts to connect, for that desire to communicate, and do your best to decipher the message. Even if you can’t figure out what she’s trying to say, assure her with your words, and with a calm, loving, and patient voice. Tell her she’s safe and cared for. Tell her it’s OK if she can’t find the words she wants. Tell her you love her.

You can’t change the way your loved one is communicating, but you can change the way you respond and speak to them. Our words matter. The way we say them matters. And if we can provide some sense of comfort and security to our loved one during what has to be a very frightening and confusing time, we should.

Your turn: How can you change the way you’re communicating with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s? What’s your biggest communication challenge?

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4 Tips for improving communication with loved ones who have Alzheimer's

Michelle Seitzer March 29, 2018

Caregiver & Parents > Advice/Tips

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Imagine the stress of losing the words and names that once came so quickly and naturally to you. Then imagine the stress of people constantly asking you, “Don’t you remember?” with a tone that usually signifies you’ve done something wrong.

As a caregiver, it is heartbreaking to witness these losses, to have the person you love not remember your name. But think about how heartbreaking it is for the person with dementia. We don’t know what they’re thinking. We don’t know if your Dad remembers your name but just can’t retrieve the letters or sounds, to put them in the right order. We don’t know if Mom recognizes your face and just can’t physically speak your name.

With so many unknowns, and as the brain continues to change during the course of the disease process, communication becomes extremely challenging, frustrating, upsetting to both of you. The best place to begin is with this compassionate point of view — and maintain that compassion in all your interactions.

If you are caring for or regularly visiting someone with dementia, here are four tips for improving communication and conversation:

1. Simplify your speech. The more words you use, the more chance there is for confusion or for the person to feel overwhelmed and stressed about sorting through them all. This is not to say you should speak to them like a parent to a child, but be more intentional about simplifying your language. For example, if you want to ask them to choose between watching a movie or playing a card game, you can just say, “Movie, or cards?” instead of “Would you like to watch ‘Singing in the Rain’ or would you like to play solitaire?”

2. Slow down. Again, you don’t need to speak to your loved one as if he is a child, nor do you have to speak loudly as if they are       hearing impaired. This is more about the pace and cadence of your speech and conversation. If you ask a question, give them time to respond. Don’t make them feel rushed or pressured. When you’re telling a story about the grandchildren, or a new project at work, keep your language simple and move at a slower pace.

3. Watch for nonverbal cues. If the person appears distressed, anxious, or uncomfortable with the conversation, take a break. Connect by holding hands, or sitting in silence together, or playing some soothing music. There are times when communication with words will be overwhelming and stressful. Be sensitive to those times and take the opportunity to communicate in other ways, through smiles, caring looks, and reassuring touches.

4. Use alternative methods. Get a whiteboard and marker, or pen and paper. Some may still be able to communicate through written language and will feel empowered by this means of communication when spoken words fail them.

Above all, don’t get discouraged — or take their lack of communication personally. If your loved one seems frustrated, even if she can’t say so, she’s obviously trying to communicate something. Be thankful for those efforts to connect, for that desire to communicate, and do your best to decipher the message. Even if you can’t figure out what she’s trying to say, assure her with your words, and with a calm, loving, and patient voice. Tell her she’s safe and cared for. Tell her it’s OK if she can’t find the words she wants. Tell her you love her.

You can’t change the way your loved one is communicating, but you can change the way you respond and speak to them. Our words matter. The way we say them matters. And if we can provide some sense of comfort and security to our loved one during what has to be a very frightening and confusing time, we should.

Your turn: How can you change the way you’re communicating with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s? What’s your biggest communication challenge?