When we need to communicate in social situations, we’re used to using lots of words to fill the silence. If you want to talk to a loved one with Alzheimer’s, though, the opposite is the way to go. Because when it comes to Alzheimer’s – or any other kind of dementia – speaking less means communicating more.
Why should I use less words when I talk to a loved one with Alzheimer’s?
The reason is that people suffering from Alzheimer’s gradually lose their ability to process what’s happening around them. That includes language. The more words you use, the harder it will be for your loved one to follow what you’re saying – and to understand.
Of course, the way you talk to your loved one will also depend on what stage of Alzheimer’s they’re at. During the beginning stage, you might not have to change the way you communicate at all. It’s during the middle, or moderate stage, that your loved one’s processing skills might need to be adjusted for.
All this talk about less is more and adjusting for processing might sound a little abstract. In order to make it clearer, we’re going to go into a few examples. But before we do that, we need to mention one more thing: atmosphere.
Atmosphere is Everything
Have you ever been in a restaurant and found the decor to be so busy and distracting that even though the food was great, the experience totally wasn’t? If you have, then you can relate to the effect that atmosphere can have on your loved one with Alzheimer’s.
Say you come to visit your relative and the TV’s on. In addition, the window’s open and it’s rush hour. The tea kettle is about to boil and it’s whistling, too. You then sit down opposite your loved one and start talking.
Your loved one just stares.
Because for you, the TV and the cars and the kettle are almost like white noise; i.e., you barely notice them. But for your loved one, all that ambient noise means that processing anything you say is now that much more difficult. It’s too busy, so they can’t concentrate on and enjoy the conversation. Just like you and that restaurant.
So before you say anything, check out the atmosphere. Lower the volume on the TV or, if your loved one doesn’t mind, turn it off. Shut off the kettle. Close the window and turn on the AC, if it’s hot.
Look at your loved when you talk to them. Make eye contact, and use their name to help them focus.
Now that you’ve taken care of that, we can get back to those examples we mentioned before.
How to talk to your loved one with Alzheimer’s, one by one
There are two things to keep in mind when you want to talk to your loved one with dementia:
- Keep your sentences short and direct.
- Include only one thought per each sentence.
This is a skill that needs to be learned, because we’re so used to utilizing words to keep a conversation friendly and flowing – and to show how much we care. Now you’re going to do the opposite: you’re going to use less words and less ideas – but for the same purpose: to show how much you care.
Note: It’s easy to let your tone become colder and more distant when you use short, limited sentences. Keep that in mind, and make sure your tone stays warm and caring even if your style feels cramped. You will get used to it. Really.
Here we go.
#1: You’ve arrived to take your loved one to a manicure.
What you might say: Hi, Mom! Are you all ready to go for your manicure appointment? Oh, wait, I see you forgot your jacket. Here it is. Great. Let’s go to the car. Do you want to listen to that oldies station you like on the way? Or do you want to listen to classical this time? I really hope the manicurist you get this time is the same one as last time. She was awesome.
What you should say: Hi! It’s time to go to your manicure. (Wait a minute.) Here’s your jacket. (Help her on with the jacket.) Let’s go to the car. (Walk quietly to the car. Turn on whichever music you think she’ll enjoy most. Don’t worry, if she doesn’t like it she’ll tell you – then you can just say “Sorry, no problem” and switch to something else.)
#2: It’s time for your loved one to eat dinner.
What you might say: Okay, Grandpa, it’s chow time! You must be starving by now. Let’s see what we have here. Ooh, I see you’ve got grilled chicken, and broccoli, and roasted potatoes. Oh, wow, that looks so good. Remember when I was a kid and I hated broccoli so much you paid me to eat it?
What you should say: Grandpa, it’s 6:30. (Pause.) It’s time to eat dinner. (Pause.) Let’s go to the kitchen/dining room together. (Pause.) Yum. There’s chicken, broccoli and potatoes (if your loved one needs that to be pointed out. If not, skip it.)
#3: Your time to visit is up and your first cousin has arrived to replace you.
What you might say: What a shame, our time is up. But do you know who’s here now? Take a guess. Yup, you got it, Laura’s here. Remember, she came two days ago, too. You remember, right?
What you should say: Dad, I have to go now. (Let that sink in.) Laura’s here to visit you. (Let that sink in.) I’ll be back tomorrow. (Pause.) I love you.
As you can see from these examples, learning how to talk to your loved one with Alzheimer’s might take some practice.
But the improvement in communication will make it so, so worth it.