Alzheimer’s is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain that results in the death of brain cells, which then results in dementia or memory impairment. Dementia itself is a general term for a decline in cognitive abilities that is severe enough to interfere with carrying out the activities of daily life, and Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia.
When someone has Alzheimer’s or dementia, their cognitive abilities are reduced, and they most likely won’t be communicating with you in the same way that they have in the past. There can be frustration, sadness and misunderstandings for both patient and caregiver/family member. However, the challenging task of communicating with, and comforting, someone living with a memory disorder can be made a lot easier and emotionally healthier with just a few strategies to mindful of.
What is the best way to speak to someone with Alzheimer’s?
Communicating with Alzheimer’s patients can be difficult, as they may only have present or long term memory: they know what’s happening in that moment, and might remember dates and incidents from childhood or early adulthood, but probably can’t recall events that took place just a few minutes, hours or days before. Following are some tips to communicate with your loved one who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia:
1.Try not to ask short-term memory questions
Asking somebody with Alzheimer’s or dementia a question that would involve their short term memory can be frustrating for you and confusing for the person who is living with the disease. Asking them a question like “how are you doing” can be too vague, and is better rephrased as “how are you feeling”, since their response is likely to be along the lines of only how they feel physically at that moment. Since many folks with Alzheimer’s or dementia do retain a great deal of their long term memory, focus on asking them for stories or anecdotes about their past. “It’s such a beautiful day outside, was it sunny like this on the day you got married?” “Those scrambled eggs look delicious, what kind of breakfast foods did you like when you were little?”
2.Don’t correct them
Although it might seem like second nature to point out when a patient or loved one uses the wrong word or says something that isn’t accurate, it’s important to understand that this is a symptom of their disease. They have problems with language, and can’t find the right words for what they’re trying to describe. As their condition progresses, their speech generally becomes more vague—they are no longer able to respond with specifics. Asking them what they did last night, for example, may only bring a reply like “the usual” or “oh, you know” because they can’t find the words or the memory of what they had for dinner, or what they watched on television. If they say something like, “can you please pass me that banana” while pointing at an apple, let it go. It serves no purpose to tell them that what they are asking for is an apple, it’s kinder to just say “sure, here you are” and hand them the apple.
3.Don’t realistically answer questions relating to loved ones who have passed away
Because someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia is probably not living in present day reality, it’s common to hear questions about loved ones who may no longer be with them. If a patient or loved one asks about a spouse who is deceased, it’s not a good idea to reply with “He died ten years ago, don’t you remember?” They clearly don’t remember, and bringing it up could cause grief and heartache all over again. The best way to deal with this situation is to distract—tell the person “He isn’t here right now, but why don’t you tell me about him.” Usually what the person is looking for is the comfort of feeling that their loved one is nearby, and talking about them can help create that illusion. Try to adapt to their reality instead of forcing them to conform to the actual situation.
4.Pay attention to body language
Touch is an important part of human interaction, and many seniors are lacking when it comes to casual but powerful touch interaction. Gently placing your hand on the patient or loved one’s back, holding their hand, or giving them a gentle hug can help keep them focused and comforted. Maintaining eye contact will make them feel as though you are present and listening to them and their concerns. When they are speaking, make sure to lean forward and nod at appropriate intervals. This will help communicate to them that you are actively engaged in what they are telling you.
5.Don’t say “no” or “you can’t”
Be careful not to use negative or absolute language around a senior who is living with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Sentences like “you can’t use the stove” or “you’re not allowed to drive” will most likely be met with resistance, as the patient or loved one is still aware of the fact that they are an adult, and will not like to be talked down to or feel like they’re being infantilized. It’s best to try to steer the conversation towards the “why” and then divert their attention from the negative aspect: say things like “we’ve been having some issues with the stove, and it’s not safe for you to use it right now. I have plenty of meals prepared for you that can be heated up quickly. If you’re feeling hungry now, I would be happy to get you a snack.” Or “You’ve always been such a good driver, but your eyesight isn’t what it used to be, and people are getting really unsafe out on the road these days. I hear about so many accidents in this neighborhood.
I would feel much better if you would let me take you on your errands or pick things up for you. Let’s figure out if there is anything you might need today.”
6.Encourage their interests and strengths
Although a person living with Alzheimer’s or dementia may not be able to do a lot of things they could in the past, there are still many activities from their “former lives” that they can take part in and achieve enjoyment from. If your loved one or patient likes to read but is struggling with poor eyesight or comprehending the words on the page, ask them if they would like to read out loud together, or listen to an audiobook, as hearing the stories spoken out loud might be easier for them to take in. If they like music or singing, encourage them by asking them to sing their favorite songs for you. Put on albums or movie musicals they like. Many seniors living with cognitive disorders can still remember lyrics to their favorite songs, and it can help keep their remaining memory sharp by reciting these lyrics. Participating in these activities with a loved one can be even more beneficial, as it often brings the elderly person joy to hear the sound of their loved one’s voices.
Memory loss from Alzheimer’s and dementia is a symptom that develops slowly over time, until one day family members are faced with the realization that they can no longer communicate with their loved ones in the same way they are used to. By using the strategies above, loved ones and caregivers will be able to minimize the difficulties on both sides, and foster a more emotionally fulfilling and healthy relationship with the person in their life who has been diagnosed with a cognitive disorder.
We are here to help guide you through the process of finding a Memory Care Community for your loved one. Our knowledgeable and compassionate Senior Care Advisors will listen to your concerns and curate a list of appropriate Memory Care Communities that will best suit your loved one’s needs, at absolutely no cost to you. Contact Us now for a free consultation.