Healthy Habits: How to speak Alzheimer's

Lauren B. Schiffman
Lauren B. Schiffman

I don’t know about you, but it seems as if most places I turn, there’s a news story about Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or other forms of cognitive impairment. And for good reason — AD is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., and about 5.2 million Americans live with dementia. Worldwide, that number is a staggering 44.4 million.

So how do we, as family members and caregivers, speak to those who have a difficult time just getting through the day?

I spoke with my colleagues, Juanita Allen Kingsley and Shana Hermans, both of whom have trained the clinicians at Natick Visiting Nurse Association and its affiliate, Distinguished Care Options, in the Alzheimer’s Association’s Habilitation Therapy. Among other topics, the clinicians learned how to communicate effectively with a person who suffers from AD and dementia.

As AD progresses, the Alzheimer’s Association says that “the communication skills of a person … will gradually decline. Eventually, he or she will have more difficulty expressing thoughts and emotions. Ultimately, the person will be unable to understand what is being communicated and lose the ability for verbal expression.”

Following are some tips that may be helpful when you talk to your loved ones who are suffering from AD or dementia.

-- An individual who has a cognitive impairment may have a tough time understanding even the simplest of words and may need additional time to process what you say. So be patient; use your words deliberately and try not to get frustrated.

-- Be sure to speak clearly and enunciate your words. Be direct in what you say, and consider introducing yourself at the beginning of a conversation so your loved one knows who you are.

-- Do not argue or try to challenge what your loved one is saying. Arguing can indicate that you are frustrated or angry, and these emotions can easily transfer to your loved one, who may mimic your behavior.

-- Minimize distractions. Information that is unimportant or irrelevant to a conversation may not be easily filtered out by someone whose brain is in decline. So, during the course of your conversations, turn off the radio or TV; find a space that’s comfortable and quiet; and choose a location that will “support the person’s ability to focus on his or her thoughts,” says the Alzheimer’s Association.

-- Try to relax. Though people with AD struggle to understand verbal communications, they are very sensitive to body language. “They are often able to detect if a person’s body language depicts happiness, anger or other emotions, and then mimic the cues they see. If a frustrated caregiver, for example, gives off a certain negative energy, the individual with the disease might mirror back the emotion and respond with an equal amount of anger or impatience,” says the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America.

While these are very basic tips and address a very simple group of ideas, it is also important to understand that each person’s condition is as unique as they are.

In an effort to better understand what your own loved one is experiencing, consider a support group that brings dementia caregivers and family members together. Support groups are a wonderful way for caregivers to get the tools they need to effectively care for someone with any condition — and a great venue to address one’s own challenges, fears and successes.

Lauren B. Schiffman is director of communications for Century Health Systems, parent company of Natick Visiting Nurse Association and Distinguished Care Options. For more information, visit or call 508-651-1786.