How to help Alzheimer and non-Alzheimer people understand each other

How to help

As a caregiver your will often fulfill the role of interpreter between a person with Alzheimer’s disease and other, secondary caregivers or with that person’s relatives and loved ones. Here are nine pieces of advice to help an Alzheimer patient – or the receiver – understand another person – or the speaker.

  1. Don’t hate the patient, hate the disease. Even before there is any understanding between the involved parties, the speaker must understand that any shortcomings on the receiver’s part are a result of the disease, and not a conscious effort to be antagonistic.
  1. Setting up a conversation. The speaker cannot just blurt something out and not expect it to go right over the receiver’s head. On the contrary, the former needs to follow certain steps to make sure the person with Alzheimer’s disease is prepared to receive as much meaning as possible; namely:
  • Approach calmly from the front.
  • Grab the person’s attention.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Smile.
  • Use touch.
  • Identify yourself.
  • Address the person by name.
  • State your purpose.

The person will Alzheimer’s disease is more likely to respond to their name than they are to a general term like ‘grandpa.’ Also, the speaker should refrain from approaching the receiver too quickly or from behind, as well as from seeming hurried or making sudden movements. Setting up a mood that facilitates conversation is particularly important in the nighttime when people with Alzheimer tend to become confused or disoriented. 

  1. Keeping it short and sweet. Do’s: use familiar words, simple sentences, stress key words, make negatives sound more positive, offer clear and concise explanations; don’t’s: overuse pronouns, speak about the patient in the third person, make controlling statements, try to use logic and reason more than necessary.
  1. When nothing’s simple nothing’s learned. The speaker must provide simple directions, one step at a time. Breaking down a multi-part task into several single tasks increases the likelihood of positive results from the person with Alzheimer’s disease. Other ways of keeping things simple for the patient is to limit choices.
  1. Don’t question; better make a suggestion. The speaker should provide a suggestion in lieu of asking open-ended questions. For instance, instead of asking what the patient would like to do, suggest an activity they need to do or might enjoy doing. Moreover, the speaker can provide answers as opposed to posing questions. In other words, they might say something like “here’s the bathroom” instead of “do you have to use the bathroom.”
  1. Ask one question at a time. When the speaker has no option but to formulate an actual question, it should be a simple one accompanied by ample time for the receiver to assimilate the query and provide an answer. Should a reply not be made, the speaker should repeat the same question word for word. Failing that, the speaker should consider requesting feedback or rephrasing the question.
  1. Keeping a running commentary. The speaker should tell the receiver beforehand of everything that they are about to do and everything that is about to take place, even if the person with Alzheimer seems not to take heed. If that’s the case, the speaker should wait and repeat. There may be certain times of the day at which the patient may be more receptive, just like there are times, especially the evening, when they are less so.
  1. Answer, repeat; answer repeat. A person with Alzheimer’s disease may ask the same thing a thousand times, but for them each time they do so is the first; the previous 999 times don’t count. Hence, the speaker should also answer as if it was the very first time. Similarly, they may have to pay their undivided attention to a story they have heard countless times before. Redirecting the conversation is a good idea here, and is certainly a better alternative to lashing out at the person.
  1. Mime is money. We have been labeling the individual attempting to communicate with a person with Alzheimer as the ‘speaker;’ however, non-verbal communication is an invaluable asset in this endeavor. Gesturing, writing, pointing, and touching are all extremely helpful tools. Furthermore, non-verbal expression should always match oral communication. That is, even if the speaker uses a soft, gentle tone, their body language might still betray their agitation – and vice versa.

Related Read:

- Understanding Sundown in Dementia