What can I do to communicate better with my loved one with Alzheimer's disease?

A person with Alzheimer’s disease may have difficulty communicating. He or she may struggle to find the right words to express himself or herself, or may forget the meaning of words and phrases. The person also may rely on gestures, especially as his or her verbal skills decline.

There are several strategies you can use to enhance communication with your loved one with Alzheimer’s disease:

  • Gain attention: Gain the listener’s attention before you begin talking. Approach the person from the front and call him or her by name.
  • Maintain eye contact: Visual communication is very important. Facial expressions and body language add vital information to the communication. For example, you are able to "see" a person’s anger, frustration, excitement, or lack of comprehension by watching the expression on his or her face.
  • Be attentive: Show that you are listening and trying to understand what is being said. Use a gentle and relaxed tone of voice, as well as friendly facial expressions.
  • Hands away; When talking, try to keep your hands away from your face. Also, avoid mumbling or talking with food in your mouth. If you smoke, don’t talk with a cigarette between your lips.
  • Speak naturally; Speak distinctly, but don’t shout. Speak at a normal rate, not too fast or too slow. Use pauses to give the person time to process what you’re saying. Use short, simple, and familiar words.
  • Keep it simple: Give one-step directions. Ask only one question at a time. Identify people and things by name, avoiding pronouns.
  • Be positive: Instead of saying, "Don’t do that," say, "Let’s try this."
  • Rephrase rather than repeat: If the listener has difficulty understanding what you’re saying, find a different way of saying it. If he or she didn’t understand the words the first time, it is unlikely he or she will understand them a second time.
  • Adapt to your listener: Try to understand the words and gestures your loved one is using to communicate. Adapt to his or her way of communicating; don’t force your loved one to try to understand your way of communicating.
  • Reduce background noise: Try to reduce background noise, such as from the TV or radio, when speaking. In addition to making it harder to hear, the TV or radio can compete with you for the listener’s attention.
  • Be patient: Encourage the person to continue to express his or her thoughts, even if he or she is having difficulty. Be careful not to interrupt. Avoid criticizing, correcting, and arguing.

In addition, remember the importance of non-verbal communication. The presence, touch, gestures, and attention of caregivers can help to communicate acceptance, reassurance, and love to a person with Alzheimer’s disease. In all cases, treat your loved one with dignity and respect. Don’t speak down to the person or speak to others as if he or she is a child or isn’t present.