Family caregiving is hard work, especially when a loved one is living with memory loss. There is hands-on care, piles of paperwork, and watchful responsibilities. Yet many family members report that of these tasks, the most challenging is communicating with their loved ones.
From the early stages of the disease, people living with Alzheimer’s may have trouble finding the right word, or understanding what words mean. Short-term memory may be more severely affected than long-term memory. Your loved one might, for example, be able to converse about things that happened years ago, yet be unable to recall things that happened or were said moments earlier. They might forget where they are or even who they are with.
Emotions, which often play a big part in communicating, may produce unpredictable or inappropriate responses. Communication difficulty can cause frustration outbursts, or withdrawal.
Practical Tips for Better Communication with Your Loved One
Think About the Environment
Choose a quiet setting for your conversation. Turn off the radio and TV. People with dementia have trouble sorting out speech from background noise, or focusing on the speaker if there is distraction.
Begin Each Visit or Conversation by Calling Your Loved One By Mame
Sit at their level, at a distance that seems comfortable, moving slowly to avoid startling them. Make eye contact and be sure you have your loved one’s attention before you attempt to touch or embrace them.
Speak Slowly, Clearly, and at a Volume Appropriate for Your Loved One’s Hearing Ability
Avoid shouting and overstimulation. Keep your messages short enough to fit your loved one’s attention span. Use short, simple sentences—but not baby talk.
Give Your Loved One Time to Organize a Thought and Respond
They might do better with open-ended questions that allow a range of appropriate responses—or with prompts requiring a simple “yes” or “no.” Watch your loved one’s reactions to see what works.
Mirror Your Loved One’s Feelings and Emotions
If your loved one is upset about something, reassuring them that everything is fine likely won’t make the situation better. In fact, it may cause more distress. Instead, validate your loved one’s feelings by telling them you understand and would feel the same way if such a thing were happening to you.
Watch Your Loved One’s Reactions
If you have to repeat yourself, watch your loved one’s reactions to see if it’s best to say the same words exactly as before (so there is only one message to process) or whether it is more helpful to paraphrase or simplify. Similarly, if your loved one is struggling for a word, is it helpful or frustrating to have you supply it?
Sometimes it May Be Appropriate for You to Just Talk
Gauging reactions through visual clues, even if your loved one is unable to organize a response. Just listening to you speak can bring them pleasure.
What to do if Your Loved One Doesn’t Know Where They Are
If your loved one doesn’t know where they are, or even who you are, it is usually best not to focus on correcting their ideas or perceptions. Instead, focus on the associated feelings they are experiencing. For example, if you and your loved one are sitting in the doctor’s office, but your loved one thinks they are at the airport, rather than repeatedly correcting them, you might say, “It’s been a long wait, hasn’t it!”
People with Dementia May Retain Certain Communication Abilities
For example, someone who is unable to carry on a conversation may nevertheless be able to sing a song. Help your loved one discover and use their unique talents.
If You are Facing Emotional or Behavioral Obstacles
Discuss the situation with your loved one’s care professionals, a counselor, or a support group.
Each person with dementia has individual communication needs, which might change from day to day, so flexibility is needed. Share what you’ve learned with other family and friends to encourage them, too, to have better interactions with your loved one.