How to Talk with Someone Who Has Alzheimer’s

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As human beings, we are created for meaningful relationship with one another. Healthy communication is a vital part of remaining connected in any relationship – even when the person you’re communicating with has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. While cognitive decline puts a tremendous toll on your loved one’s ability to remember significant people, places, and things, it can also severely impact your ability to communicate with them.

There are, however, a few important tips to bear in mind as you are working to maintain healthy communication with your loved one. It is also vitally important that you remember no matter what stage your loved one is in, human connection is essential to his or her overall well-being. That said, the following are some suggestions to make this challenge a bit easier for the both of you.

  • Create A Distraction-Free Zone: Background noises can distract anyone – even those with no cognitive challenges at all. But for a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, the television, radio, or other device can easily compete with your conversation. Give your loved one’s conversation your full – and undivided – attention in a peaceful environment.
  • One-On-One Conversation: While it may sound silly, having multiple individuals gathered together for conversation can create an overwhelming and highly confusing environment for your loved one. After all, the more individuals who are present, the more apt each party is to contribute to the conversation. It can prove to be extremely agitating to your loved one, whose brain may still be trying to process what has been said as well as who has offered the input. Keep the conversations simple – one person at a time.
  • Simple, Lighthearted Conversation: There’s always something to be said for small talk, but especially so when your loved one is experiencing cognitive decline. Most of us are taught to converse with others using open-ended questions to spark conversation. However, for an Alzheimer’s patient, this leaves entirely too many choices. Remember, your loved one may not remember the significance of certain titles, such as “nurse.” Therefore, he or she may ask questions like, “What’s a nurse?” Combat these challenges by simply referring to your loved one by name, and referring to yourself (or another person) by name. It helps the Alzheimer’s patient to orient themselves. If you’re speaking to your loved one about an animal, address the animal either by name (if it’s a pet) or by species (for example, “cat”) instead of saying “it.” Again, it helps your loved one keep track within the conversation.
  • Be Patient and Non-Combative: It is easy to understand how difficult it becomes for you, as the loved one of a person suffering from such a debilitating disease, to repeat yourself or explain the who-what-and-where’s of very familiar things. But engaging in arguments will most likely end in one result – agitation for yourself and your loved one. Stay calm and repeat yourself if necessary. If your loved one seems to be having difficulty in making a request, do your best to state the question you feel he or she is attempting to ask. For example, if your loved one is fumbling around for something on a table nearby, you may say, “Are you looking for a tissue? Are you looking for your glasses?”
  • Watch Yourself! Everyone understands that non-verbal communication is as important as, if not more than, verbal cues. Cognitive decline, especially as it progresses, will undermine a person’s confidence as simple, routine tasks become increasingly more difficult. Thus, your loved one is likely to be highly sensitive to everything you say and do. The tone of your voice and your body language is important. Expressing your acceptance with friendly eye contact and kind facial expressions is important. After all, the goal is to maintain positive communication with your loved one and to minimize feelings of confusion or distress which may lead to negative, hostile reactions or to your loved one “shutting down” due to feelings of isolation.