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Tips for Communicating with a Loved One Who Has Alzheimer’s

November 23, 2021

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are approximately 6.2 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s dementia. What this number doesn’t include is the number of loved ones and caregivers who are also affected. Although there is no cure yet, there are some things we can do to help put our loved ones who are living with memory impairments at ease. One of those things is learning how to communicate with them effectively.

In honor of November being National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, we’ve asked Concordia Adult Day Services Director Stefanie Dietrich some questions regarding communication and Alzheimer’s disease.

Stefanie began her Concordia career right after high school in 2002, working in personal care for Concordia at Cabot as a nursing assistant. When Concordia established a mentor program, she served as a mentor before moving into the Adult Day Services Director position in 2019. Outside of Concordia, Stefanie serves at her church in the children’s ministry and volunteers at other organizations.  

“I believe the Lord has a purpose for everyone and caring for others (in any stage of life) is my God-given passion,” Stefanie said.

Alzheimers Awareness Month InfographicQ: How can a caregiver/family member help make communication easier when their loved one has Alzheimer’s?

Stefanie: Losing the ability to communicate with loved ones who are suffering with Alzheimer’s is a difficult and frustrating situation. Fortunately, there are ways to make communication easier. Of course, this will depend on the individual and their stage in the disease process.

We always want to use positive communication to maintain their dignity. The person suffering from Alzheimer’s can often sense your frustration and will respond in the same way. Positive communication means smiling and having eye contact. It can also mean encouraging a positive behavior. Instead of saying, “Don’t do that,” try saying “Let’s go for a walk together.” Calling them by their preferred name, instead of “Honey” or “Sweetie,” will help them feel comfortable with you. We want to speak in a calm tone. Speaking too loud or too quietly can overwhelm them.

Related: Tools to Help Family Caregivers

Q: What are the different stages in which one can communicate with Alzheimer’s?

Stefanie: We can communicate with our loved ones in all Alzheimer’s stages. In the early stages, we want to be patient and allow them the time to respond. Words do not come to their mind as quickly as they used to and if the person feels rushed, they may become frustrated with you and themselves. We need to be aware and accepting that their words may run together or they cannot always find the correct word. Don’t allow this to discourage you and them.  

As the disease progresses, we want to use short and simple sentences when we communicate. We want to give very clear instructions when we are trying to accomplish a task. For example, getting your loved one to brush their teeth may look like this: “Mom, it’s time to brush your teeth.” Then we would hand her the toothbrush with toothpaste on it. Maybe we would have to demonstrate the motion of teeth brushing or we guide the toothbrush to her mouth. We do not want to overwhelm our loved one with too many choices. Often “Yes” or “No” questions are best. “Mom, would you like to wear this sweater today?” instead of “Which sweater would you like to wear today?” Offering suggestions and allowing them to make decisions is important for their self-esteem.

Q: Is it possible to still live a healthy lifestyle with Alzheimer’s?

Stefanie: There are many ways to live a healthy lifestyle with Alzheimer’s. Getting adequate exercise is very important to maintain your physical health. Increasing your heart rate by walking, swimming, or dancing can improve circulation to your brain. Increased blood flow to the brain is vital for overall health, but especially for memory. Exercise doesn’t need to be strenuous to be helpful - find something you enjoy. Exercise also boosts immunity and we’re all striving for a good immune system right now!

Another way to keep your brain healthy is to avoid added sugars and processed foods. These foods are known to deteriorate the brain. Nutritionists recommend shopping the perimeter of the store, getting in lots of green vegetables, dark skinned fruits, and lean meats. We should limit alcohol as well.

Maintaining healthy relationships is also important for memory care. Spending time with family and friends helps us to retrieve old memories as well as make new ones. Puzzles and crosswords are also useful in brain health, but they need to be difficult enough to challenge your brain.

Related: Tips for Handling Alzheimer’s Disease in Loved OnesRelated: Tips for Handling Alzheimer’s Disease in Loved Ones

Q: Are there any nonverbal techniques you can use when communicating with someone with Alzheimer’s disease?

Stefanie: Some nonverbal ways to communicate with someone suffering from Alzheimer’s include body language. We want to approach them from the front and be at eye level. We want to show them that we are present and focused on them. Physical touch can be a great form of communication. Holding their hand or rubbing their back may help them feel comfortable and cared for. Using signs or pictures around the home can be helpful as well. A simple picture of a toilet on the bathroom door can help them locate the restroom. Labeling items with clear black print can also be very helpful. In the Adult Day Center, we have the soap dispenser labeled SOAP to encourage handwashing.

Q: Any other tips and information you’d like to add for caregivers and loved ones?

Stefanie: Be mindful of the environment when you are trying to have a conversation with your loved one. If the environment is too noisy, they may be overstimulated. This can cause them unnecessary frustration. Other things to consider in the environment are the lights. Are they too bright? Is there enough light? Is there too much commotion or movement in the room, causing your loved to be distracted? These are all things to consider. If your loved one enjoys soft quiet music, they may enjoy it in the background while you’re together.

Most importantly, if you are caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are many resources available to help you in your unique situation. Caregiving is a challenging, yet rewarding experience. Concordia offers support groups and other programs to help you along this journey.

Are you having difficulty caring for your loved one with Alzheimer’s Disease? If interested in learning more about our memory care or personal care facilities, visit the Locations section of our website, www.concordialm.org. You may also contact Concordia’s Adult Day Services Director Stefanie Dietrich at 724-352-1571, ext. 8271.

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