Communication plays a crucial role in our daily lives.
Our ability to communicate thoughts and feelings to those around us helps us to maintain our sense of identity, and is an integral part of maintaining our quality of life. When a person has Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, the area of the brain that controls speech often is affected, making communication difficult and creating challenges for both the patient and his or her caregivers. As the disease progresses, it becomes increasingly important that families develop strategies to aid in communication, and to help ease the inevitable stress that comes with these challenges.
As an Alzheimer’s patient’s verbal skills begin to decline, he or she may use familiar words repeatedly. He may easily lose his train of thought, or have trouble organizing words into complete sentences. He may even begin inventing new words for familiar objects. Listeners need to be patient and positive, and try not to interrupt. Constant correction and arguing will do nothing to facilitate effective communication, and may actually exacerbate the situation by creating unnecessary anxiety.
It is helpful to remember communication difficulties often can be managed by demonstrating good listening skills. Be patient, and give the individual time to sort his thoughts as he speaks. If you are not sure you understand, try rephrasing and repeating back what you heard to see if you have understood correctly. Pay attention to body language and non-verbal expressions; a person’s reactions often are a good indicator of how they are feeling and whether they have understood what has been said.
When directing conversation to a person with Alzheimer’s, use short, simple words and sentences. Lengthy phrases can be overwhelming, so ask one question at a time. Speak slowly and distinctly, and be patient when awaiting a response; sometimes the listener may need a moment to process what has been said to them. Be clear and precise; naming objects instead of using “it” or “that.” Rather than saying “here it is,” say “here is your book,” and point to or touch the object to which you are referring.
It is important to remember, when you are communicating with a person with Alzheimer’s or dementia, your demeanor can help facilitate understanding. Above all, keep the mood light and easygoing. Your tone of voice clearly conveys whether you are frustrated and impatient or relaxed and comfortable. A simple touch also can be reassuring, so don’t be afraid to offer a gentle pat or friendly hug as an expression of support. A little validation can go a long way toward making a difficult situation easier to manage, so smile and nod, maintaining eye contact as an indication that you are interested and engaged. In the end, your willingness to share your time and attention may be the most important thing you communicate to a friend or loved one who is struggling to make a connection.
Miller is with Long Term Care Authority of Enid Area Agency on Aging.