How to Talk With Someone Who Has Alzheimer’s

June 16, 2009 at 11:39 pm 1 comment

Your spouse, your dad, your mom gets that dreaded diagnosis: Alzheimer’s.

You worry about your future, about your relationship, about all those conversations you meant to have. You don’t mean for it to, but things change. Maybe you, the primary caregiver adjusts–after all, you’re with them all the time–but you notice that neighbors and other family members act awkward. 

How Do You Talk with Someone Who Has Alzheimer’s?

Operative words: talk with, not talk to.

So many times we talk to each other. We don’t listen. There isn’t an exchange of ideas. No give and take. We want them to do something, to follow our directions, to agree with us. So we talk to people…and we all know how ineffective that is.   

Alzheimer’s makes life precious. As we notice that our loved one’s words are slipping–the forgetting of every day events, the inability to call that what-cha-ma-thingy a telephone–we begin to grieve our losses. We dread the day they will no longer recognize us, the day they slip into silence. But don’t get hung up on words.

Talking with someone is more than the banter of witty conversation. It’s chemistry. It’s memory. It’s play and thought and body language and all those wonderful ways we communicate–with our eyes, the way we comb our fingers through their hair, the nudge of the elbow as we sit together and people watch at the mall, and there’s nothing more beautiful than the way a couple “talks” with their eyes.

Yes, words will eventually diminish. Try to focus on all that you have. One moment of truly connecting with another human being is a rare and precious gift.

I can remember one very rough patch with my mother. She had been in the hospital for over a week and when she returned home she curled into a fetal position and no matter what I said or did I couldn’t get her to respond to me. Then one day, I got really close to her face, stroked her hair and just started sharing my heart in barely a whisper. She opened her eyes and looked right at me. And then she winked.

That is one of my most precious memories.

Tips for Talking With Someone Who Has Alzheimers:

  • Become aware of their body language and what it means. What do they do when they’re in pain? Wince? Squirm? Many UTI’s (urinary tract infections) go undetected in the elderly because they don’t know how to express what they’re feeling.  
  • Go ahead and make a family video. Get them sharing about their grandparents, about the war, about where they grew up–and do it now. Ask gentle questions and don’t focus on nailing down times and dates–they could feel stressed. Ask them how it made them feel when they came home from the war front. Isn’t that more important? You can Google a date, not a feeling.
  • Continue to talk and share even if they don’t respond back verbally. The brain can create a disconnect and be unable to form words, but that doesn’t mean that your voice isn’t soothing and grounding. It can be a constant that makes them feel safe. Again, watch carefully and see if you notice signs of muscles relaxing or tensing. What subjects are interesting and what subjects are irritating?
  • Include your elder at the dinner table. Nothing is better for the brain than to engage in a good convesation. The laughter, questions, and arguing about politics or the latest celebrity gossip is a great way to fire those neurons.
  • For some, the television becomes a non-entity. I’ve seen many care homes in which the television was on 24/7 but no one responded to it. Is the television for you–or them? Try to pay attention to how they react to the television. Do they enjoy the animal planet or old re-runs? Most people with Alzheimer’s can’t relate to the news, and it may even upset them.
  • On the other hand, music usually does get a response, especially when you first turn it on. Try the music of their youth–40s Big Band, 50s Rosemary Clooney and Frank Sinatra. Others find Bach’s melody a stress reliever. What causes their face to light up? Try a little light dancing–even wheel chairs turn–so see if that’s something they find enjoyable.
  • Don’t get into the question circle. Our loved ones with dementia and Alzheimer’s can cause us to lose our cool by asking a million and one questions. If they don’t remember where they live five minutes ago, they probably won’t remember it five minutes from now. Get them an ID bracelet (in case they get lost) and don’t fight that never-ending battle. Smile and change the subject.
  • Be okay with where you are–right now. I know how scary it all is. I know what you’re losing, but life can still be good. There’s nothing better than eating ice cream together. Just be present. Let this time, this experience be a part of the bigger story. If it’s a good day, then soak it in. Enjoy the afternoon sun. Enjoy the way their eyes light up when a cardinal flies by. If it’s a bad day, let it go. I used to imagine a giant strainer (like a spaghetti strainer)  and water washing all the hurt and frustration away.

Talking with those we love is so much more than bunch of words batting back and forth. It’s the privilege of sitting side-by-side. It’s the touch of a hand.

It’s an unexpected wink.

Entry filed under: brain fitness, caring for parents, elder care, family caregiving. Tags: , , , , .

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This Blog

Hi, I'm Carol O'Dell. This blog will include stories and lessons I've learned while caring for my mom, and now as I speak to caregivers around the country. I hope to offer suggestions, ideas and insights that will help others.

While this blog is supported by Dakim Brain Fitness, I’m not blogging to promote the Dakim company or products. Instead, I’m writing about how caring and being cared for affects your life and your family. My hope is that this blog gives you a place to learn, reflect, gain new perspective to make it another day.

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