How do you talk to someone who has Alzheimer’s?

Daughter talking with her mother as they enjoy the patio.

No matter how deeply we care about friends or family, Alzheimer’s disease or dementia can make us uncomfortable — especially when we don’t fully understand it.

Seeing your loved one struggle with memory loss, confusion, or the ability to understand situations and surroundings is difficult.

Fortunately, there are strategies for making your time together meaningful.

Good Samaritan Society experts suggest planning activities that focus on past experiences, rote learning and long-term memory. It’s also important that activities are mentally stimulating because they can help improve concentration, language retention and word-finding abilities.

Things you can enjoy together:

  • Sorting familiar objects such as large beads, small toys or craft supplies.
  • Reminiscing using items that are most likely to encourage a response, such as an old photo album or a favorite piece of jewelry.
  • Listening to or singing familiar songs and helping your loved one recall events or feelings associated with the music.

Mentally stimulating activities:

  • Playing games with letters and/or numbers.
  • Matching cards or colors.
  • Playing modified or simplified board games or card games.
  • Working on modified or simplified crossword puzzles.
  • Playing word games such as completing phrases, common proverbs, opposites, similes or rhymes.

Don’t become discouraged if you’re not able to immediately find an activity that matches your loved one’s functioning level. It will take time to find the things that work for them.

Whatever activities you decide on, it’s also good to allow a sufficient response time during each one.

As Alzheimer’s disease progresses, it will become more difficult for your loved one to communicate. You will need to assume the role of leader and carry more of the conversation.

For some, this is a challenge, but there are strategies you can use to enhance your visit.

Communication tips

  • Face the person directly.
  • Allow additional time for the person to respond.
  • Try other forms of communication (such as singing).
  • Share and discuss memories of the past.
  • Follow the person’s lead during discussions and allow the conversation to occur on its own rather than expecting it to happen within a specific time frame.
  • Minimize the use of questions or quizzing, such as, “Do you remember who I am?” Instead, introduce yourself when you talk to them: “Hi Mom, it’s your daughter Jennifer.”
  • Avoid correcting or arguing. Keeping things positive is more important than facts. If you can’t understand what the person is telling you, try to respond to the emotional context of the conversation.
  • Be aware that periods of silence during the visit are OK.
  • Avoid elderspeak.

What is elderspeak?

Elderspeak is the term used for speaking to older adults in a simplified, childish way. Its features include:

  • Speaking slowly and loudly, or in a sing-song voice
  • Using inappropriately intimate pet names, such as sweetie, honey or dear
  • Using smaller words and shorter sentences
  • Using pronouns like “we” and “us” instead of “you,” such as, “How are we doing today?”
  • Asking questions that assume role loss, idleness or powerlessness, such as “Who did you used to be?” or “What did you used to do?”

While many caregivers feel like speaking in a cheerful, simple way or using terms of endearment shows they care or makes them easier to understand, many older adults are less than receptive to this form of language. Studies have shown that even people with mild to moderate dementia react negatively to elderspeak, causing them to act aggressively and reducing their cooperation.

To avoid elderspeak, be sure to speak in a normal tone at a normal pace, using normal words. Refer to the person by their name or the term you've always used to address them (Jane, Mrs. Jones, Mom, Grandma).

Remember, Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia are progressive diseases, so what works one day might not work the next. The trick is to be flexible and patient. It's important to remember that your presence is what matters most to your loved one.

Do you have a loved one struggling with memory issues?

We can help.


Sources: ChangingAging, Aging Parents Insights, The New York Times

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