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Communicating with Your Loved One Who Suffers from Alzheimer’s or Dementia

As a family member of someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia, effective communication can be your most valuable skill.  Learning to communicate effectively with your loved one can take time and practice.  In the early stages of dementia, you may only need to slightly adjust some of your communication techniques.  As the disease progresses, it may become more and more difficult to communicate with him or her.  Always try to keep in mind that your loved one has an illness.  Do your best to practice patience, love, and tolerance during all your interactions.  While cognition and memory loss can vary substantially from one person to another, there are some general communication strategies that can be helpful in most instances. 

Slow and Steady

In general, most people with dementia respond more favorably to slow and gentle forms of communication.  Particularly if you’re a very high energy person, you may need to moderate your talking speed.  Speak slowly and clearly when talking to your loved one.  Focus on one thing at a time.  Try to avoid asking multiple questions back to back.  It’s also important to be patient when your loved one is responding.  Allow them whatever time they need to respond to any questions.  While it’s best to avoid finishing sentences for them, if they are having a hard time coming up with a particular word, a pleasant “guess” can be helpful at times.

Calm, Cool & Collected

Along with slowing down the pace for your loved one, softening the whole interaction can also help with communication.  One-on-one conversations are easier than group settings for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.  A quiet, peaceful environment is generally preferable.  Background noise from the television, radio, or street traffic can be very distracting.  Likewise, dramatic hand gestures or moving around too much can make it difficult for your loved one to focus.  Try to use soft and gentle gestures and maintain nonthreatening body language. 

Be Positive and Encouraging

When speaking with your loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia, always try to use positive and encouraging language, expressions, and gestures.  While smiling and laughter can be positive in most instances, try not to laugh at them if they make a mistake or say something out of context.  Often, it’s helpful to pay close attention to their facial expressions and gestures.  People with Alzheimer’s and dementia sometimes express themselves more with their faces than their actual words.  Gentle and appropriate physical contact can also be helpful at times.  Touching their hand, arm, or shoulder to let them know you understand can be very reassuring. 

Patience is a Virtue

The old adage that patience is a virtue is good to keep in mind when dealing with your loved one throughout the various stages of Alzheimer’s or dementia.  Over time, their ability to communicate well will decline and may vary quite a bit from one day to another.  You may need to adapt to these changes to some extent.  Try to remain flexible and pay attention to what works best in different situations.

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