One of the most challenging aspects of diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s is that they affect communication. The loss of memories can cause extreme emotional stress, which is only exacerbated by social barriers that block out human contact when it’s needed most. Fortunately, there are some ways to help keep us connected when communication becomes difficult:

  • People with Alzheimer’s or dementia are often anxious. They may not be sure of what day or time it is, where they are, or even who they are. Avoid increasing their anxiety by approaching them quickly and front-on. Instead, walk slowly enough to give them time to sense your presence. In addition, don’t lean over them, as that can feel threatening. Sit, kneel, or crouch so that you’re not looking down at them.
  • Always introduce yourself, and use the person’s name as you speak.
  • Use simple, precise words. For instance, instead of saying, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse,” say, “Let’s go to lunch now.”
  • Speak slowly and in a low tone of voice.
  • Slow the pace of your conversation, pausing between sentences to give the listener time to absorb your words and process their meaning.
  • If someone is struggling to find the right word, it’s appropriate and even helpful to give suggestions. Still, make sure you give them the opportunity to correct you if your guess isn’t what they had in mind, and that you stop if it seems to be upsetting them.
  • Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If your words don’t seem to be getting through, try to get your message across in a different way. Alternatively, use gestures and other types non-verbal communication, like leaning towards them when they speak. Written notes can be a very effective tool for those who are still able to read.
  • Never forget the power of empathy. Sometimes those suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia can’t come up with the words to express themselves. Sometimes they use the wrong words. Sometimes they get the facts wrong, like insisting it’s time for dinner when it’s not even noon yet. In these situations, focus on the emotions their communicating rather than the specific conversational details. Offer reassurance and support, whether it’s through your words, a comforting pat on the arm or squeeze of the hand.

Your loved ones with dementia or Alzheimer’s may no longer remember the details of their lives. Some days, they may not remember you. But they’re still people, and they still feel. As communication skills diminish, worry less about the specific words being used. Instead, focus more on the feelings those words are trying to express.

These suggestions were adapted from the Alzheimer’s Society and the University of Wisconsin.