If you or a loved one is suffering from Alzheimer’s, you know firsthand that communicating can be extremely challenging and wearing. Similar to caring for a child, it requires patience and understanding on the part of the caregiver. The difference is that a child is still growing and learning new things, while someone with Alzheimer’s is progressively regressing. Here are Five Tips to follow when communicating with someone who has Alzheimer’s
1: Never Argue, Instead Agree
Especially in the early stages of Alzheimer’s or dementia, caregivers often report their loved ones become very argumentative. Many describe a situation in which their loved one “says things that are inaccurate, then becomes very defensive/angry when someone tries to correct or clarify the inaccuracy.” In these types of situations, it’s important to remember the person with Alzheimer’s is experiencing a progressive cognitive decline beginning with short-term memory loss. In their minds, what they’re saying is what they know to be true.
2: Never reason, instead divert.
As a caregiver, it’s important to remember the disease progressively attacks different parts of the brain that control: 1 Short-term memories (i.e., difficulty remembering things from a few hours or days ago) 2 Language (i.e., difficulty finding the right word) 3 Logical thought (i.e., problem-solving, grasping concepts, making plans) They lack the ability to understand the significance of completing these daily tasks in a timely manner. Trying to reason with them is a futile effort because the part of their brain that controls logical thinking has been hindered. It also seems to imply, “I am right, and you are wrong.” A much better approach is to change the subject to an agreeable topic.
3: Never shame, instead distract.
When caring for someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia, it’s important to remember that the parts of their brain that control short-term memories, language and logical thinking have been impaired. They most likely don’t realize what they’re saying or doing could be viewed as inappropriate. Try redirect their attention to a new topic.
4: Never lecture, instead reassure.
When someone has Alzheimer’s, it can be difficult for them to remember what to do in certain situations, even if you provide simple instructions. Let’s say you drive them to the doctor’s office and drop them off at the front door while you find a parking spot. Even if you tell them to, “Stay right here,” they may wander off in the few minutes it takes you to park the car – not because they’re purposing disobeying you, but because they simply can’t recall the instructions you just gave them.
Not only is it frustrating and scary for you, but it’s also frustrating and scary for them. Imagine how confused they must feel not knowing why they’re standing outside of an unfamiliar building. As a caregiver, your first instinct is probably to lecture them about how worried you were, but keep in mind, this will only aggravate the situation. Due to the disease destroying the part of the brain that houses short-term memory and logical thought, they really don’t remember what you told them or why they’re there. Instead, offer reassurance. Next time, plan better so you don’t have to leave them alone, even for a few minutes.
5: Never say, “remember,” instead reminisce.
Alzheimer’s disease progressively impairs the parts of the brain that house short-term memories, language and logical thought. The disease then moves on to the parts of the brain that control emotions and processing of the senses (i.e., sight, smell, touch, etc.). Eventually, the disease attacks the part of the brain that stores one’s most precious memories (e.g., wedding day, birth of a child, etc.).
Keeping this in mind, try to avoid asking someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia if they “remember” something or someone. Just as you wouldn’t ask a blind person if they’d just seen a new movie or read a recent book, you shouldn’t ask someone with memory impairment, “Remember when … ?” I understand this can be a difficult habit to break, given we are so inclined to start conversations this way.
Even when doctors are trying to diagnose the illness, they commonly ask Alzheimer’s patients to recall/remember things. The problem with this is that the person with Alzheimer’s really can’t remember, even if they try. Not only is this frustrating and embarrassing for them, but it can lead to social withdrawal. It’s not uncommon for them to refuse to respond or even walk away. Instead of asking them if they “remember,” try starting the conversation with a statement. For example, if you’re looking through a photo album, don’t point at a photo and say, “Remember Bob and Sue’s wedding?” Instead, point to the photo and say, “This looks like it was taken at Bob and Sue’s wedding.” This way, you’re not putting them on the spot. If they remember, great! They will feel a part of the conversation and enjoy reminiscing with you. If not, they can simply enjoy looking through the photos with you as you tell them the story of Bob and Sue’s wedding day.
Try out these tips next time you need help with communicating with someone who has Alzheimer’s.
It takes a little muscle and it takes a little grit,