Strategies to Effectively Communicate with
Someone who has Alzheimer’s or Dementia
If you have experience caring for someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia, you know that confusion can surface in so many ways: One day, a person forgets where they put her car keys; the next day, they forget what the family car looks like; and the next day they forget how to turn the ignition.
When communicating with someone who has Alzheimer’s or dementia it is far more important to focus on our reaction to them than to worry about what exactly the person is confused or forgetful about. If we are not careful, it is easy to feel frustrated or annoyed with the person and this can translate into a negative feedback cycle that magnifies the issue.
Here we cover five strategies that can help you more effectively communicate with someone who has Alzheimer’s or dementia:
#1: Do not try to “right” the “wrong”
When someone says something that is seemingly outrageous or that you know to be false, it is often instinctual to correct them. For instance, a woman I recently spoke with was telling me a story about her cousin who recently passed away. “You wouldn’t believe it,” she started to tell me, “but my cousin lived until she was three-hundred and six years old.” Instead of correcting her assertion or responding with laughter or ridicule, I simply validated her own feelings and agreed that it was quite remarkable. By giving her a minute to gather herself she was able to re-think what she said and correct it to one-hundred and three years old (which I knew to be true prior to this conversation).
When communicating with someone who has Alzheimer’s or dementia, be aware that they are often simply unable to accept your attempts at reasoning. Trying to convince the person that what he or she has said is wrong or illogical will only cause defensiveness – to avoid embarrassment or to deflect a threat to their sanity, often expressed as an outburst of anger.
This can be especially in early-stage of Alzheimer’s or dementia, a person can be aware that he or she is growing forgetful, put yourself in his or her shoes: what would it feel like to know that what you say and think may not be true and accurate?
#2: Respect routines
While many elderly people maintain routines over many years, a person experiencing confusion related to dementia or Alzheimer’s may develop new routines, some to help ease anxiety or create a kind of purpose. Some simple routines can be both beneficial and harmless: always keeping their reading glasses in the same spot (even though it is the top drawer of the dresser between a month-old newspaper and a pile of illegible notes!) or running the dishwasher after each meal with only two or three dishes in it.
Actions that may seem bizarre or unconventional to us may provide a confused person with purpose and control. Effectively caring for someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia is in part about challenging ourselves to adapt to behaviors unlike any we have seen before in that person. If the person is safe and seems to be calmed by certain tasks, it is often okay to allow these routines to take root.
#3: Encourage Independence
When it becomes apparent that a family member or friend is declining in their ability to take care of themselves, it can be difficult for everyone. Someone who once took care of a household, held a job, or raised a family cannot do something as simple as pour a glass of water or get dressed for the day. Take note of what the person can do instead of what they cannot do, encourage these activities and allow independence as to how they are done, no matter the length of time it takes, or where it occurs (within reason!).
Memories are precious for someone who is losing their memory. The ability to spontaneously recall memories may be lost over time, but triggering someone’s mind with old photographs, music, stories, or reminders of places can evoke a sense of not only gratification but belonging. Similarly, he or she may have a few vivid memories – listening to a story repeated multiple times may be less than exciting for you, but the ability to tell a story for that person is more than gratifying.
#5: Be aware of yourself
If a person is confused, and especially if they are unsure of who you are, the first thing they resort to is appearance – analyzing your body language, tone of voice, and general demeanor. Speaking in a low, calm voice and sitting with an open stature may help them feel at ease, therefore lessening any threats or negative feelings toward you. This will subsequently establish a sense of trust, hopefully easing the challenge of openly communicating with you. This may be a greater-than-expected challenge. Remember that regardless of who the person is and how deep his or her confusion lies, you can find ways to demonstrate that you continue to acknowledge him or her as a capable, respectable person and not just a confused person.
Alvita Care is a premier provider of in-home care services designed to enhance the well-being, independence and dignity of our clients. We understand the challenges of caring for a loved one who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. Contact us today
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