Alzheimer's: Tips for Effective Communication

Communicating with someone who has Alzheimer's disease can be challenging.

Because Alzheimer's disease slowly erodes verbal communication skills, your loved one's words and expressions might make little or no sense to you. In turn, he or she might have trouble deciphering your words. The resulting misunderstandings can fray tempers all around, making communication even more difficult. Here's help easing the frustration.

What to expect

Alzheimer's damages pathways in the brain, which makes it difficult to find the right words and to understand what others are saying. A person with Alzheimer's disease might have trouble finding the right words or invent an entirely new word to describe a familiar object. He or she might get stuck in a groove—like a skipping record—and repeat the same word or question over and over.

A person living with Alzheimer's disease might also:

  • Lose his or her train of thought
  • Struggle to organize words logically
  • Speak less often
  • Revert to a native language

What you can do to help

Despite the challenges, you can communicate effectively with someone who has Alzheimer's disease. Consider these tips:

  • Be patient. Let your loved one know you're listening and trying to understand. Don't interrupt. Keep your voice gentle. Hold the person's hand while you talk. If you're frustrated, take a timeout for yourself.
  • Show respect. Avoid baby talk and diminutive phrases, such as "good girl." Don't talk about your loved one as if he or she weren't there.
  • Avoid distractions. Communication might be difficult—if not impossible—against a background of competing sights and sounds.
  • Keep it simple. Use short sentences. As the disease progresses, ask questions that require a yes or no answer. Break down requests into single steps.
  • Offer comfort. If a person with Alzheimer's is having trouble communicating, let him or her know it's OK. Encourage him or her to continue explaining what he or she is thinking.
  • Use visual cues. Sometimes gestures or other visual cues promote better understanding than words alone. Rather than simply asking if someone who has Alzheimer's disease needs to use the toilet, for example, take him or her to the toilet and point to it.
  • Avoid criticizing, correcting, and arguing. Instead of correcting your loved one, try to find the meaning in what he or she is saying. To spare anger and agitation, try not to argue with him or her.

Communicating with someone with Alzheimer's disease can be challenging, especially as the disease progresses. Remember, however, that your loved one isn't acting this way on purpose. Don't take it personally. Use patience and understanding to help him or her feel safe and secure.

Updated: 2016-04-28

Publication Date: 2002-01-17

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