We think of Alzheimer’s disease as one that causes people to lose their memory, but it is so much more than that. The damage to the brain erodes the ability to process information. As the disease progresses people lose awareness of their environment and eventually themselves. Communicating with someone suffering this disease can be a monumental challenge and a great source of frustration for the caregiver. While it would be great to say there is a way to make the process smooth sailing all the way, the effects of the disease make it impossible to completely overcome this hurdle. But, there are strategies that can help you communicate more effectively, which can go a long way in reducing the frustration you may feel.
Watch Body Language
This may be one of the most important caregiver tips for communicating with Alzheimer’s patients. People with dementia are known to be very receptive to body language. Whether you are feeling anxious, angry, happy, sad, impatient or frustrated, your loved one will likely pick up on these cues and mimic them back to you. So, even if you may not be feeling particularly chipper at the moment, giving the appearance you are, may make for a more pleasant interaction for both of you.
Don’t Overwhelm the Person with Information
This disease makes it very difficult to process information and what seems like simple questions or a simple series of steps to be completed can leave a person with dementia very confused and agitated. If you find yourself needing to ask multiple questions at once, do them one at a time and try to phrase them in way that allows for a yes or no answer. Break down tasks into simple steps to be explained and performed one at a time. When it comes to choices, give options if still appropriate but limit them. For example, instead of leaving your loved one to rifle through their whole closet to find an outfit, lay out two to pick from. If you are preparing a meal, do not just ask the person what she wants—have them pick among two or three options.
Making the Person Feel Comfortable
Doing what you can to avoid the person becoming upset will make communicating easier on the both of you. Never approach a dementia patient from behind as this will startle and upset them. Standing too close or standing over your loved one can feel intimidating. Being at their eye level or below will make him feel more in control. Do not underestimate the value of physical contact when communicating with your loved one. Holding their hand, rubbing their back or any other form of soothing touch can ease frustration and anxiety.
An important piece of the more effective Alzheimer’s communication puzzle is being a better listener. It is all too easy to focus on getting out what you are trying to convey while neglecting what your loved one is trying to say. Most of us are bad at listening in general and could use some work. Make a conscious effort to listen more carefully to the person. I can assure you that as you gain greater awareness of your listening ability, you will see that you were probably not doing the best job. If you have not completely understood what the person has said, reiterate the parts you did understand and confirm if you are correct. Difficulty finding the right word or finishing a sentence is a common challenge. If you see this happening, try asking the person to explain in a different way. Try to glean clues as to what the person may be trying to communicate. Pay close attention to their body language for clues on how they may be feeling.
Kelli Cooper is a freelance writer who enjoys blogging about elder care issues; she recommends visiting Lift Caregiving for the wealth of information it provides caregivers.