How should I communicate with my loved one who has Alzheimer's disease?

If a loved one has Alzheimer’s disease, communicate by using reassurance and compassion. Watch Ramesh Ghanta, MD, of Frankfort Regional Medical Center, discuss how losing memory is a very fearful process.
If you're the caregiver for a parent or loved one who has Alzheimer's disease or dementia, you probably know that communication is one of the biggest hurdles of day-to-day life for them. Speech and vocabulary recall are taken for granted in youth, but their importance quickly becomes apparent once the ability to clearly communicate is lost.

You can help your aging loved one by making some minor tweaks in the way you interact with him or her.

First, try to remember to stay positive. It can be easy to get frustrated when a misunderstanding occurs -- especially given that you are likely juggling a career and other responsibilities while taking on the role of a caregiver. But by maintaining patience and positivity, you can help communication move as smoothly as possible. This entails using a gentle tone of voice, using body language that conveys openness and receptiveness, avoiding any negative facial expressions and using touch when comfortable and appropriate.

When attempting to have a conversation with a person with cognitive decline, try to minimize distractions in the room. Turn off the television and close curtains or shut the door to gain their full attention. Make eye contact and address them by name, and reintroduce yourself if needed, both by name and relation. Using nonverbal cues like gestures or touch may also be helpful, since verbal recall is often the main barrier to clear communication.

Keeping this in mind, try to make your sentences as simplistic as possible. Do not use extraneous words, use a low tone of voice and speak slowly. When explaining how to do something, breaking the task down into steps may help them carry out the activity or at least understand what is happening.

Know that at times, people with dementia will say things that don't make sense. Don't try to correct them with logic or facts. Rather, try to determine if what they are saying is a reflection of something they are feeling and focus on correcting or addressing that.
It's likely that at some point your aging loved one will get frustrated or even angered by his or her inability to get an idea across. Responding calmly and patiently may help diffuse the situation. You may also want to simply acknowledge his or her feelings, and then suggest moving on to another activity.

Patience is the key to communicating with a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. Patients with Alzheimer’s often ask the same question over and over. One of the best ways to communicate is to reminisce about the past so that your loved one can rely on his or her intact long term memories.

Here are some tips to enhance interactions with someone who has Alzheimer's disease: 
  • Remember that the individual with dementia might be feeling confused, anxious, irritable, and depressed, and suffering from low self-esteem.
  • Speak clearly, slowly, and in a calm and friendly tone.
  • Be aware of body language. Individuals with dementia are often able to detect if a person’s body language depicts happiness, anger, or other emotions, and then mimic the cues they see. If a frustrated caregiver gives off a certain negative energy, the individual with the disease might respond with an equal amount of anger or impatience.
  • Use visual cues, pointing to things to show what you mean. Instead of saying, “Please brush your teeth,” pick up the toothbrush and demonstrate, for instance.
  • Make certain that the person with dementia has the best chance of seeing and hearing you. This involves checking that the person is wearing glasses and hearing aids, if necessary, and that talking occurs in a quiet environment.
  • Approach the individual from the front. An unexpected touch or drawing near from behind may upset the person.
  • Before asking the individual to do something, address the person by name to get his attention. While you are speaking, maintain eye contact to help him focus.
  • Ask only one question at a time and allow time for an answer. If he does not seem to understand, repeat the question using the same wording. If this does not work, after a few minutes, rephrase it.
  • Allow the individual adequate time to respond in conversation or when performing an activity. Rushing will increase confusion.
  • If the individual repeatedly asks a question, keep in mind that he cannot remember the response you have just given him. Instead of answering the question after a second or third repetition, reassure him.
  • Eliminate distractions, such as the TV or radio.
  • Avoid statements that sound negative. For example, instead of "Don't go outside," say, "Stay inside."
  • Use humor whenever possible, though not at the individual's expense.
  • Break down all tasks into simple steps. Giving too many directions at once or too quickly will increase confusion. If the individual gets upset and becomes uncooperative, stop and try again later.
  • Keep on talking, even when a person may no longer be verbal. Chat about things that mattered to the person and mention names of family and friends. Even one-sided communication can show that you care.
To communicate with someone with Alzheimer's disease:
  • Use simple phrasing and short sentences, but be careful to avoid talking to the person as if he or she were a child.
  • To get the person's attention, begin by using his or her name.
  • Be patient. Give someone with Alzheimer's time to complete a sentence or thought, and try not to interrupt.

Continue Learning about Caring For Someone Who Has Alzheimer's Disease

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.