Communicating with an Alzheimer’s Patient

I’ve discovered a very valuable resource recently, available from the National Institute on Aging through ADEAR, The Alzheimer’s Disease and Referral Center. It’s a guide called “ Caring for a Person with Alzheimer’s Disease”. It is written in a style we can all understand. The link to the site where you can download this guide is: http://www.nia.nih.gov/Alzheimers/Publications/CaringAD/

One of the most helpful sections of the guide relates to the communication problems we have with Alzheimer’s patients. My mom is still in the early stage of Alzheimer’s Disease. I can communicate with her reasonably well. But our conversations usually revolve around the same basic issues, her need for an eye examination, her desire for a phone to call her friends and an explanation of how my father died. She readily admits that she has forgotten a lot and is often frustrated by not being able to remember things like her mother’s funeral or my Dad’s illness. One of the important things I have learned is to never use the phrase “Do you remember…..” The guide has been helpful in improving my ability to communicate with my mother and reduce her frustration when talking to me.

The ADEAR guide has recommended these tips to improve communication with an AD patient:
Make eye contact to get his or her attention, and call the person by name.
Be aware of your tone and how loud your voice is, how you look at the person, and your “body language.” Body language is the message you send just by the way you hold your body. For example, if you stand with your arms folded very tightly, you may send a message that you are tense or angry.
Be open to the person’s concerns, even if he or she is hard to understand. This helps the person with AD feel better about himself or herself.
Use other methods besides speaking to help the person, such as gentle touching to guide him or her.
Try distracting someone with AD if communication creates problems. For example, offer a fun activity such as a snack or a walk around the neighborhood.

To encourage the person with AD to communicate with you:
Show a warm, loving, matter-of-fact manner.
Hold the person’s hand while you talk.
Be open to the person’s concerns, even if they are hard to understand.
Let him or her make some decisions and stay involved.
Be patient with angry outbursts. Remember, it’s the illness “talking.”
If you become frustrated, take a “timeout” for yourself.

To speak effectively with a person who has AD:
Offer simple, step-by-step instructions.
Repeat instructions and allow more time for a response. Try not to interrupt.
Don’t talk about the person as if he or she isn’t there.
Don’t talk to the person using “baby talk” or a “baby voice.”

Here are some examples of what you can say:
“Let’s try this way,” instead of pointing out mistakes.
“Please do this,” instead of “Don’t do this.”
“Thanks for helping,” even if the results aren’t perfect.

You also can:
Ask questions that require a yes or no answer. For example, you could say, “Are you tired?” instead of “How do you feel?”
Limit the number of choices. For example, you could say, “Would you like a hamburger or chicken for dinner?” instead of “What would you like for dinner?”
Use different words if he or she doesn’t understand what you say the first time. For example, if you ask the person whether he or she is hungry and you don’t get a response, you could say, “Dinner is ready now. Let’s eat.”
Try not to say “Don’t you remember?” or “I told you.”

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2 thoughts on “Communicating with an Alzheimer’s Patient

  1. Bob, my mother in law has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. My wife and her four siblings are wrestling with these communication issues and this piece you have written is extremely helpful, as are the resources to which it links. Thank you for these keen insights.

    Houghton (Houghtie) Hutcheson
    Princeton ’68

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