Do You Have Any Suggestions For How I Can Better Communicate With My Loved One Who Has Alzheimer's?

Kathleen Buckwalter answers: 'Communicating Better With Alzheimer's?'

May 4, 2009 -- Question: Do you have any suggestions for how I can better communicate with my loved one who has Alzheimer's?

Answer: Communicating with someone with Alzheimer's disease can be challenging both for the person with dementia and those who are trying to talk to them. That's because part and parcel of this disease become difficulties receiving information, understanding what we're saying back to the individual and naming of objects.

So, for example, it's not uncommon for someone with Alzheimer's disease to say something like, "Oh I want to sit in, I want to, I want to sit in that thing with four legs!" They will describe the object, but they can't actually name the chair that they want to tell you about.

So we want to use just very basic principles of good communications. Speak slowly, speak directly, use good eye contact, don't interrupt, don't criticize, and if the person doesn't seem to answer immediately, allow plenty of time for them to retrieve that memory or to respond back to you.

If they don't seem to understand, then repeat the question. But repeat it or rephrase just as it was given the first time.

We also want to make sure that we use non-verbal communication in people with Alzheimer's disease: So a smile, a hug, a touch, all of that is critically important in terms of communicating with them. It's also as important the tone of voice is as important as the words that we're saying.

So if we're saying something like "Joyce, what are you doing in there?!" that sends a message. Even though the person with Alzheimer's disease may not be able to understand the words -- they know they've done something bad. They have messed up in some way. Or if we could just say, "Joyce, what are you doing there?" We still get the question across, but in a way that is much easier for them to receive and to feel good about themselves.

We want to preserve dignity of choice in our communications, but we want to avoid open-ended questions, use of pronouns, things that will require abstract thinking on the part of the person with Alzheimer's disease because these abilities can be compromised as part of the disease process.

So we would say -- introduce ourselves by name, we would call them by name every time we come into the room. We might say, "Mrs. Jones, would you prefer to wear the red dress, or the blue dress this morning?" rather than an open-ended question like "what do you want to wear this morning?"

This allows them to still preserve the dignity of choice, but to give a better response and communicate their needs. And it's critically important for all people to be able to express their desires, wants and needs, and that's true in Alzheimer's disease as well.