By Diane Atwood, who writes the Advantage Home Care Blog.
My mother has Alzheimer’s. I try to learn as much as I can about the disease and how to handle the myriad issues that are always coming up. I know, for instance, that you can’t argue with someone who has Alzheimer’s or any form of dementia.
Communication tips from the Alzheimer’s Association
- Be patient and supportive
Let the person know you’re listening and trying to understand and show the person that you care about what he or she is saying and be careful not to interrupt.
- Offer comfort and reassurance
If he or she is having trouble communicating, let the person know that it’s okay. Encourage the person to continue to explain his or her thoughts.
- Avoid criticizing or correcting
Don’t tell the person what he or she is saying is incorrect. Instead, listen and try to find the meaning in what is being said. Repeat what was said if it helps to clarify the thought.
- Avoid arguing
If the person says something you don’t agree with, let it be. Arguing usually only makes things worse — often heightening the level of agitation for the person with dementia.
- Offer a guess
If the person uses the wrong word or cannot find a word, try guessing the right one. Perhaps you understand what the person means, you may not need to give the correct word. Be careful not to cause unnecessary frustration.
- Encourage unspoken communication
If you don’t understand what is being said, ask the person to point or gesture.
- Limit distractions
Find a place that’s quiet. The surroundings should support a person’s ability to focus on his or her thoughts.
- Focus on feelings, not facts
Sometimes the emotions being expressed are more important than what is being said. Look for the feelings behind the words and notice that at times, the tone of voice and other actions may provide clues.
Communication can be tough
No matter how much I have learned, there I was, sitting in the car with my mother the other day, not really following any of communication tips. I was doing it all wrong and didn’t know how to stop myself. She was upset because: She wanted to go to the bank and thought I said we had to wait until the morning; the grill was moved off the back deck; the garage door was locked; she had to explain to someone that she owned her own house — why she even took a job to help pay off the mortgage. That person should know that it’s HER house.
I kept trying to come up with what I thought were reasonable explanations. Take the garage door, for example. I told her it was locked for safety reasons because on the other side is a dangerous set of stairs to the basement. “It’s my house,” she told me angrily. “I’ve always gone through the garage and I should be able to do it now.”
I felt frustrated and impatient. She became more agitated. Finally, I realized the error of my ways. I took a deep breath and sat quietly for a moment. I said, “Let’s go to the bank and then take a nice long ride in the country.”
Hours later, everything we talked about was still on her mind — yes, even with Alzheimer’s. This time, when she brought up the locked garage door, instead of explaining why it was locked, I said that it must be really frustrating to find the door locked. She blew me away with her response. “No, it doesn’t bother me,” she said. “It has to be locked because it’s safer.”
Who says you can’t laugh in these situations!
I learned you can’t argue with someone who has Alzheimer’s, even when you’re being reasonable. My job is to step into her world now, where my kind of reasoning no longer exists and learn to focus on feelings, not just facts. One of my mother’s caregivers from Advantage Home Care helped me understand the emotions my mother might be dealing with when I shared that I’d had a difficult time communicating with her that day. and she told me that she had noticed my mother seemed to be complaining about a lot of seemingly minor things lately. “People with Alzheimer’s often do that,” she explained to me. “As they lose control over the more important things in their lives, they begin to focus on smaller things — a locked door, a grill that was moved without permission. She’s just trying to maintain some control. It must be so hard for her.”
I felt as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders and I wanted to cry. Alzheimer’s is such a difficult journey, and I’m grateful for everyone who is there to help us along as we try to find our way.
Originally posted June 10, 2013.