An adult man has a pleasant conversation with his father, who is living with Alzheimer's.

How to Communicate with a Loved One Living with Alzheimer’s

Bethesda Health | July 12, 2019

Communication is an exchange. We trade information, opinions, emotions, thoughts, and memories. When we communicate with someone who has Alzheimer’s, the need for exchange is still there, but it requires different ways of listening, understanding, and encouraging that exchange. Here are some tips to communicate with a loved one living with Alzheimer’s and ensure an effective exchange.

How People Living with Alzheimer’s Communicate

In its early stages, people living with Alzheimer’s will repeat information, have difficulty finding the right words to express themselves, and lose their train of thought. They may also speak less often and begin to rely more on gestures than words.

As the disease progresses, the person’s attention span will continue to shorten. They may become easily agitated and verbally or physically abusive. They will use sounds, body language, and facial expressions.

The time of day also will begin to affect their mood and ability to communicate. In some cases, if English is not their native language, they may forget how to speak it.

Alzheimer’s disease affects each person differently, so you should not make assumptions about someone’s capacity to communicate. Listen to them closely, watch their reactions, find subjects that still seem to interest them, and, most importantly, be patient.

Non-Verbal Communication

Much of our communication is through gestures, facial expressions, and speaking pauses. People with Alzheimer’s both use and understand these forms of non-verbal communication, depending upon the progression of the disease. As a result, it can be an effective way for you to reinforce your message.

Other non-verbal tips include:

Sounds, smells, and tastes can be a form of communication as well, stirring up positive memories, emotions, and even laughter.

Keep It Simple

Too much information, noise, people in the room, and choices can be overwhelming for someone with Alzheimer’s. For effective communication, simplify your technique using the following tips.

One person speaking, slowly and clearly is best. Do not use “baby talk.” Respect the dignity of the person.

Ask one question at a time. Do not make it a multiple-option question. Rather than asking, “What would you like to drink?” you should ask, “Would you like a glass of tea?” At some point, the disease may have progressed to the point where you may only be able to ask yes or no questions.

Use the same approach when giving directions—one-step at a time. Simple to-the-point sentences are best.

Consider taking the person with Alzheimer’s to a quiet spot for your conversation, especially if there are many distractions.

Have a Plan

Before the Alzheimer’s diagnosis, conversation with your senior loved one was probably relaxed and easy. You did not have to think about what you were going to say, much less plan for it in advance. Now, to avoid long confused silences, preparation may be necessary.

Feel free bring videotapes, family photos, music, or a favorite food to spark their memory and get the dialogue going. Perhaps a walk in the yard or helping with some gardening or other hobby that they used to enjoy would help. Sharing these moments can be a wonderful way of making a connection even if words are not exchanged.

In addition, you may find that visiting or calling at a good time of day for your loved one will make communication easier.

Encouragement is Key

Listening, sharing, and having a positive attitude are encouragements for anyone, whether they are living with Alzheimer’s or not. There are some things that you should avoid that can be discouraging and potentially shut down communication.

Do not raise your voice, show stress or frustration during the discussion.

Do not complete sentences for your loved one. Be patient and do not interrupt.

If your senior does not use the correct words, do not supply your correction. Pointing out mistakes or arguing will probably end the discussion. Learn to redirect the conversation without contradicting your loved one.

It may be tempting to ask your loved one why he or she does not remember what you said. The answer is they do not have that ability anymore. Questioning them about it can be frustrating and discouraging for both of you, and your conversation will be over.

If your parent is living with memory loss or dementia, it may be time to consider Assisted Living or Memory Care. Schedule a tour at a Bethesda community in St. Louis to see how our dedicated Memory Care Neighborhoods create a safe and homelike environment for your loved one.

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