What are some tips and strategies in communicating with someone with Alzheimer's disease?

Those with Alzheimer's disease experience changes in the way they communicate with others. The disease diminishes the individual's ability to communicate and to understand others. The affected individual also has trouble expressing thoughts and emotions.

There are many obstacles in communication for those with the disease. It becomes frustrating when the right words escape him or her, and they begin to invent new words for objects or names for people. Often the individual will use the same words or phrases repeatedly, such as "I want to go home." While the caregiver may think their loved one actually wants to go home, it might be that the affected individual is just looking for what home represents, such as security, familiarity, family and love and warmth.

Losing one's train of thought is very common, and the affected individual will soon speak less often because of the challenges and obstacles in communicating. Use of gestures becomes more prominent as the individual tries desperately to convey his or her needs with others. Some individuals may revert to their native language because it is more comfortable and familiar.

With so many communication obstacles and language deficits, using visual cues are very important. Caregivers should watch facial expressions and body language as they can be keys to understanding if their loved one is angry, distressed, excited, ill, etc. And, in the same way, the expressions of caregivers convey a lot, too, as the affected individual can sense irritation, impatience or fear from the caregiver.

Communication begins with trust and building a relationship with the affected individual, offering mutual respect and looking at and appreciating the person behind the disease, instead of always focusing on what the disease is doing to the individual.

Those with Alzheimer's almost always respond to a smile and a simple gesture, like a soft handshake or a reassuring touch on the shoulder. Caregivers should try to sift through the non-cohesive phrases to identify their loved ones' needs. Though this takes a lot of patience and perseverance, it can help the caregiver come to a better understanding of what the affected individual is actually trying to communicate and a means for redirection in anxiety.

Always speak directly to the affected individual, making eye contact, and take time to listen to what the individual is trying to say. Try not to interrupt, and always give time for the individual to respond. It is very helpful to talk with the affected individual about something he or she knows or what is more comfortable. Pay attention to the choice of topic and go along with that choice of conversation, whether it is factual or not. And, caregivers should never ignore, ridicule, or criticize the affected individual's choice of words or expressions of need as these types of responses are disrespectful and demean the individual.

That being said, try to keep laughter in the conversations. Oftentimes, humor can help improve confidence in the affected individual and it can lighten the mood and actually make communicating somewhat easier.

Questions about Alzheimer's disease or a related disorder can be sent to Dana Territo, the Memory Whisperer, director of services at Alzheimer's Services of the Capital Area at advice@alzbr.org or visit the organization at 3772 North Blvd., Baton Rouge.