Communicating With Someone Who Has Alzheimer’s Disease

Keep it Simple, Smile (KISS)

By Carol Combs, MSW, Oxford’s Memory Care Program Coordinator

As humans, we are communicating from the time we are born. Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias can gradually diminish the ability to communicate as the disease progresses. That person’s ability to express thoughts and comprehend what others are saying can be affected. Individuals with Alzheimer’s or dementia may forget words, invent words or use familiar words repeatedly. They may lose their train of thought and become frustrated at not being able to express themselves.

Communicating with memory-impaired individuals presents challenges, but there are some techniques that you can learn to ease understanding.

  1. KISS (Keep it Simple, Smile)A smile can communicate when words cannot. A person with Alzheimer’s or dementia understands a smile and the feeling behind it. Social skills remain intact when language fails so a handshake, greeting, pat on the back or holding hands are ways to communicate without a lot of words. Touch is the most basic form of human connection.
  2. Speak Slowly and ClearlyIt takes much longer for a person with dementia to process what has been said. Use short, simple sentences and maintain eye contact. Give them time to respond. If they do not understand, repeat with the same tone and facial expression and change key words if necessary.
  3. Tone of VoiceAs a caregiver, it is sometimes common to revert to a parental role, which can come across as condescending and disrespectful. Communicate in a pleasant, patient and unhurried manner. People with Alzheimer’s or dementia are aware of nonverbal cues such as facial expression, stance, tension or mood and may react similarly. If you are impatient, anxious, or frustrated, they are likely to become annoyed or agitated.
  4. Use One Step DirectionsBreak down tasks and instructions into clear, simple steps. Do the activity with them such as brushing teeth so they can mimic the task.
  5. Offer Praise and EncouragementFor the person who is gradually losing the ability to perform basic activities, it is important to maintain feelings of success and self-esteem. Use phrases like “You’re doing fine”, “Good job”, “You look very nice”, and ‘’Thank you”.
  6. RephraseAvoid vague words – Instead of “Here it is”, try “Here’s your hat”.
    Turn a negative into a positive – Instead of “Don’t go there” try “Let’s go here”.
    Provide the solution rather than the question – Instead of “Do you need to use the bathroom?” try “The bathroom is right here”.
    Avoid open-ended questions – Instead of “How many children do you have?” try “What was it like to raise 5 boys?”
    Ask yes/no questions – Instead or “How do you feel?” try “Are you tired?”
    Limit choices – Instead of “What do you want for lunch?” try “Would you like chicken or fish?”

Most importantly, treat them with dignity and respect, regardless of how difficult communication becomes. The person with Alzheimer’s or dementia can understand nonverbal communication and humor longer that they can understand spoken communication. Even when the person is unable to communicate, they need affection, which you can communicate through touch.

If you have questions or concerns our Memory Care Program Coordinator would be glad to assist you.  Additional information is also available through the Alzheimer’s Association.

Pets Makes Us Happier and Healthier

By Pam Gennings, Executive Director Special Projects 

“Happiness is a warm puppy,” said Charles M. Schulz, the creator of Peanuts.

He, along with every pet lover out there, knows from experience what scientific research is now proving: pets make us happier and healthier.

Pets are also great conversation starters. I witnessed this first hand while working for the Missouri Division of Aging. One day, I received a phone call from a concerned niece. Her uncle (Mr. V) lived alone, was not eating right, taking care of himself and just seemed lonely and depressed.

She warned me that her uncle was cantankerous, very independent and reluctant to accept any outside help. Then she wished me luck.

When I arrived, Mr. V was very hesitant to let me in, but finally agreed. It was obvious he did not welcome my company, did not want to talk and certainly did not want any help. How was I going to get through to him?

Looking around I noticed a photograph of a man in hunting gear with an Irish Setter by his side. Could this be the key to reaching Mr. V?

“Who is that?” I asked.

Mr. V told me it was a picture taken several years ago of him and his Irish Setter.

“I have an Irish Setter named Orie,” I told him. That connection changed Mr. V’s demeanor and our meeting. We started sharing dog stories. He told me about the dogs he once had, and I told him all about Orie. When it was time to go, he welcomed a return visit.

Irish Setter Orie

Guess who came along with me on my next visit? I’ll never forget the look on Mr. V’s face when he opened the door and saw Orie. I am convinced Orie knew Mr. V needed him. Orie sat right beside Mr. V who petted him the entire time we talked. By the end of our visit, Mr. V agreed to have a personal care assistant come to help him at home. I agreed to bring Orie back.

Taking Orie to see Mr. V was more than a conversation starter; it was therapeutic. Research is showing that pet therapy can:

  • Lift spirits
  • Encourage communication
  • Increase socialization
  • Reduce loneliness or depression
  • Provide comfort
  • Meet the basic human need of touch

If you, or someone you know, could benefit from a furry friend I urge you to check out pettherapyozarks.org.