How to Communicate with Someone with Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s disease, one of the most common types of dementia, affects people’s memories and communication abilities, and unfortunately, thousands of people in the United States are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s every year. Because of this, many people are left to figure out how to communicate with their loved ones as their symptoms develop.

Thankfully, there are helpful strategies that family members and friends can use to achieve successful communication with a loved one with memory loss. Let’s explore how Alzheimer’s affects the brain and how you can navigate communicating with your loved one.

How Alzheimer’s Disease Affects Communication

Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia that causes memory loss due to dead brain cells. People often experience mood changes and confusion as the disease progresses. 

Specifically, Alzheimer’s affects the temporal lobe in the brain, which is responsible for learning new information. For this reason, many loved ones can still remember details far off in their memory, such as:

  • Where they went to college
  • Their wedding date
  • Where they lived as a child

Since long-term memories are stored in many areas of the brain, the disease must advance severely before those memories are lost. However, people with Alzheimer’s struggle to remember recent memories, such as a family member visiting the day before or what they ate for breakfast. 

As the disease progresses, you may start to notice specific changes in communication with your loved one, including:

  • Speaking less frequently
  • Trouble finding the correct words
  • Easily losing thoughts
  • Gesturing more than speaking
  • Using familiar words repeatedly
  • Difficulty organizing words


The Three Types of Memory

There are three kinds of memory: functional, procedural, and emotional. Each type of memory has a different function.

Functional Memory

Reasoning, comprehension, and conscious thoughts are handled with functional memory. In loved ones with Alzheimer’s, functional memory loss can manifest in ways such as asking how to operate a microwave or feeling unable to decide what to eat. 

Procedural Memory

Procedural memory is also referred to as automatic memory. Procedural memory covers functions that generally don’t require conscious thought, such as brushing your teeth, holding a fork, or brushing your hair. 

Emotional Memory

Gut reactions and other unconscious thoughts are controlled by emotional memory. People with Alzheimer’s may associate specific emotions with certain activities.

Common Communication Difficulties 

There is no doubt that communicating with someone with Alzheimer’s can be challenging at times. However, learning helpful strategies can bridge communication barriers and foster fulfilling relationships. 

Focus on the present moment. Since people with Alzheimer’s can’t remember what happened earlier and don’t know what will happen next, it is vital to focus on your loved one’s present feelings. Your loved one might become frustrated if they’re not able to recall something that happened recently or remember plans for the future. 

Sometimes, communication difficulties occur because loved ones with Alzheimer’s often respond to questions the way they always have. For example, people will react as they always have to questions like, “How are you today?” Additionally, if you call your loved one and ask if they took their medication, they may respond with “yes,” even if they didn’t actually do so. In this case, it’s important to remember that they simply rely on their long-term memory to answer certain questions.

Difficulties can also occur during visits. You may visit your loved one every day, but they could claim that you never come to spend time with them. Remember, your loved one isn’t purposely trying to hurt your feelings. They simply cannot remember that you came to visit and are expressing their feelings based on their current state.


Communication Do’s

The best way to communicate with a loved one with Alzheimer’s is to let them know that they’re not alone. There are many verbal and non-verbal ways to positively communicate with a loved one with Alzheimer’s, including:

Use the Senses

Describing senses is a fantastic way to communicate with your loved one. Ask them what they can see, smell, taste, feel, or hear. Sensory activities are creative ways to help your loved one’s memory. If you know they love to listen to piano music or feel soft, fuzzy socks, you can help them engage in those activities. 

Positive Non-Verbal Communication

Eye contact is one of the most powerful ways to engage a loved one with Alzheimer’s. Additionally, positive touches such as hugging, holding hands, or gently rubbing the back can help your loved one feel safe and engaged. People with Alzheimer’s can also understand body language late into their disease, so practice softening your posture and leaning in when you speak.

Use Simple Sentences

Try to avoid complex words and sentences with your loved one with memory loss. Instead, use basic words and simple sentences and repeat them when needed. Opt for “yes or no” questions rather than open-ended questions. Remain patient and use a pleasant, encouraging tone when you speak to avoid agitations or frustrations. 

Engage the Long-Term Memory 

Stories, music, and humor go so far with people with Alzheimer’s. Tell or ask for stories from their childhood, show photos, and play music. Many studies have shown that listening to or singing music provides emotional and behavioral benefits for people with memory loss. Musical memories are often preserved in undamaged areas of the brain.

Another comforting practice is to play hymns or songs from their religious upbringing if your loved one has a spiritual or religious background. Reading verses and spiritual poems can also bring solace. 

If you can engage in these familiar practices regularly, that is all the better. Routines and structures are proven to help people who live with Alzheimer’s disease.


Communication Don’ts

Just like there are beneficial ways to communicate with someone with Alzheimer’s, there are also unbeneficial ways. Try your best to avoid the following scenarios when communicating with your loved one: 

Avoid Short-Term Memory Questions

When your loved one with Alzheimer’s tries to remember the answer to a short-term question, it can cause fear if they can’t remember. Avoid asking about what they had for breakfast or what they watched on television earlier. Instead, play to their long-term memory strengths that were covered earlier.

Resist Saying Goodbye

Saying goodbye to your loved one at the end of your visit can cause fear and distress because “goodbye” often feels final to them. Your loved one would struggle to understand why you are leaving. Alternatively, provide a concrete reason why you are ending the conversation, such as, “I need to go home to make dinner for my family.”

Steer Clear of Triggering Words

Certain words and phrases can feel hostile or agitating to your loved one. Try to avoid:

“Do you remember?”

Commands and other negative statements feel confrontational for people with Alzheimer’s, and they can often experience anger and frustration when presented with these types of phrases. Asking your loved one if they remember something can trigger a fear response because they try to remember but cannot. 

Don’t Match Aggression

Sometimes, people with Alzheimer’s may have aggressive responses to their environment. When agitated, your loved one may say hurtful things or resist help from caregivers by pushing or hitting. Aggression is most often an attempt to communicate that they want to stop whatever is happening. Under all circumstances, do not respond with more aggressive behavior. Instead, stop whatever activity is currently happening and remain calm. 

Successful Communication with Someone with Alzheimer’s is Possible

When communicating with a loved one with Alzheimer’s, communication styles may need to adapt and change from what might feel natural to you. Remember, even though your loved one is losing their memory, they still have feelings, emotions, and a sense of humor. Using the strategies listed here, you can overcome barriers and positively connect with your loved one. 

If your loved one could benefit from a dignified memory care community, consider the Betty’s Harbor Memory Care neighborhoods here at New Perspective. Each of our communities has a full-time Life Engagement Manager that works to keep residents active, made-from-scratch meals, and 24-hour supervised care. Contact us to set up a tour today!