Published November 14, 2012
Caring for elderly loved ones can be challenging. And when Alzheimer’s robs them of the ability to talk, you both may feel lost. To mark Alzheimer's Awareness Month, read on for tips to communicate better and ease their frustration – and yours...
You notice your father missed a doctor’s appointment or is forgetting common words. Soon, he repeats the same simple question or struggles to retrieve family members’ names. When advanced symptoms of dementia set in, he may speak less to avoid making mistakes or get angry when you try to help him.
When you’re caring for an elderly person with Alzheimer’s disease, communicating can become one of your biggest challenges. But it’s critical to his well being.
"People with Alzheimer’s want to maintain social relationships,” says Richard Caselli, M.D., professor of neurology at Mayo Clinic Arizona and clinical core director for the Arizona Alzheimer’s Disease Center.
Communication also keeps them occupied when the disease limits their independence.
"It prevents them from getting bored and looking for things to do,” Dr. Caselli says. "[Without it,] they may start wandering or get into some other trouble.”
As a caregiver, you may be struggling with the best ways to offer support and keep your loved one from harm. Here are 9 tips that can help:
1. Speak gently and make eye contact.
A person with Alzheimer’s disease has trouble processing the world around him, says Barbara Moscowitz, M.S.W., Li.C.S.W., of the Departments of Social Services and Geriatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital. "To him, it feels like he’s standing in the middle of chaos. Nothing makes sense.”
Maintain a sense of calm by speaking in a normal voice and looking him in the eye so he stays focused on you.
Resist the urge to speak loudly, which many of us do when we don’t think we’re being understood, says Laurie Spresser, a licensed therapist who works with Alzheimer’s patients and their families at Mayo Clinic Arizona.
You want him to focus on your words, rather than your tone, which can prevent him from processing what you’re saying.
2. Keep it simple.
Short, basic requests are most effective for getting your point across. As your loved one’s Alzheimer’s disease progresses, so will his ability to follow multi-step directions, says Beth Kallmyer, M.S.W., senior director of constituent services for the Alzheimer’s Association.
For example, if you’d like laundry help, hand him a basket of clothes and ask him to fold them. A series of requests (take the clothes out of the washer, put them in the dryer, and fold them once they’re done) will frustrate him because he can’t remember all those steps.
Eventually, you’ll need to break down even the simplest requests and pose yes-or-no questions, says Spresser.
Instead of offering a choice like "Do you want coffee or tea?” ask him if he wants coffee and wait for an answer, she suggests. If he says no, ask him if he’d like tea.
Although you’re simplifying your speech, don’t be condescending. Alzheimer’s patients have trouble communicating, but they are – in the early and middle stages – still able to recognize when they’re being talked down to, Kallmyer says.