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Communicating with someone with Alzheimer’s, dementia

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There are many individuals who are caring for a person with Alzheimer’s or dementia on a daily basis.  Whoever you are, you are aware of many difficult decision that need to be made on a daily basis and it can leave you frustrated, anxious and confused in knowing just exactly how to communicate with them. 


Hopefully this article will help you understand what is occurring in your loved ones life and may assist you in communicating with them.

One of the first things that you may encounter is changes in their communication skills as this skill is difficult for those individuals suffering from this illness. They may struggle to find the right words or forget what they want to say.  This can be frustrating for them and you, as well.  According to the National Institute on Aging these are a few of the communication problems they may encounter:

  • Trouble finding the right word when speaking
  • Problems understanding what words mean
  • Loss of train-of-thought when talking
  • Trouble remembering the steps in common activities
  • Problems blocking out background noises from TV, radio, telephone calls or conversations in the room
  • Frustration if communication isn’t working
  • Being very sensitive to touch and to the tone and loudness of voices

When giving day-to-day care to your loved one, here are some suggestions regarding communication:

  • Always make eye contact to get his or her attention and call them by  name
  • Be aware of your tone and how loud your voice is; how you look at that person and your “body language”.  If you appear tense, agitated or stressed, they will pick up on your body language and it will make them more uncomfortable and, in turn, they may mimic your “body language”.
  • Encourage a two-way conversation for as long as possible.
  • Use other methods besides speaking, such as gentle touch, to guide them
  • Try distracting them if communication creates a problem such as a snack, a walk or a fun activity that they enjoy.

As a caregiver you need to encourage the person to communicate with you by showing a warm and loving manner. Individuals usually respond better to touch. Hold their hand while you speak with them.  Always acknowledge their concerns,. Even if you don’t totally understand why they are concerned about a certain thing, it is VERY REAL in their mind.  Encourage them to make decisions so that they still feel involved.  They may demonstrate angry outbursts but remember it is the illness talking, not them, and if you become frustrated, always take a “timeout” for yourself.

When speaking with them, always give simple step-by-step instructions.  You may have to repeat the instructions more than once, but allow more time for their response.  Even if they make mistakes, simply say “let’s try this way.”  Always say thank you for helping, even if it wasn’t perfect, as this gives them self-worth. 

When asking questions, try to limit them to yes or no answers, as this is easier to process.  For example, when eating out, ask them if they would like a hamburger or chicken.  If too many choices are given they may be trying to remember what the first two selections were and not hear the rest. Sometimes we may need to use different words. For example, if you ask them if they are hungry and get no response, simply rephrase by saying “Dinner is ready now, let’s eat.”    One very important thing to remember when communicating with your loved one is try not to say “Don’t you remember?” or “I already told you that” or “You already told me that story or asked me that question.”  This creates anxiety and sometimes anger in the individual as they don’t remember asking or they don’t remember you telling them.  We, as caregivers, need to be very aware of how we communicate with our loved ones suffering from this illness.

I will address in the next article changes in personality and behavior and supply tips on understanding how to ease those behaviors and changes in personality.

Kathy Hawbaker is regional marketing director for Life’s Journey Senior Living.


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