Alzheimer’s is one of the most devastating diseases any individual or family can face. The disease makes its subjects feel like they are in a constant state of being lost. Nothing is familiar to them: not the room they live in, the furniture, their daily routines, the faces they see every day, or even their own family members. Imagine how you feel when you’re driving along and realize you’re lost. At first, you may feel angry and frustrated that you can’t figure out the directions; you may feel irritated with the unfortunate “backseat driver” who tries to help out. And then, there’s the fear that grips you when you’ve steered your way into parts unknown with threatening danger at every turn. For someone with Alzheimer’s, the analogy is all too real. Alzheimer’s symptoms make them feel frustrated, confused and fearful in a world full of strangers doing things to them or giving them “backseat” directions. It’s no wonder they exhibit anger or appear agitated.
So, how do you communicate with a person with Alzheimer’s? How do you break past the fear, the anger and the confusion to have a loving conversation? Talking to Alzheimer’s by Claudia J. Strauss is full of terrific advice. Here are some of Strauss’ suggestions, which you can share with all of your family members when they visit someone with Alzheimer’s:
Calm down before walking in to visit. Your goal is to get yourself emotionally ready and to be at ease. Take some deep breaths, envision your favorite quiet place or call up the feeling of someone rubbing your shoulders or back so that you can relax. Why? You’ll want to convey a sense of peacefulness and give off “good vibes,” as that’s what he or she will pick up. It’s best to enter the room with something like, “Hi, Dad, it’s me, Linda, your daughter,” so he won’t have to guess or be embarrassed.
Your loved one’s reality has changed. Setting him straight on facts and dates is not helpful. It will probably agitate him and remind him that he’s losing his grip on reality. If he thinks his mother is still alive or that his son is still small and needs to be picked up from school, simply show that you’re listening rather than argue. You could nod or say, “I hear what you’re saying,” or give a noncommittal “uh, huh,” if you prefer not to lie.
Expect a lot of repetition. Your loved one is struggling to remember the last conversation he had. He lives in the moment. Every time he asks a question, it is new to him, so you must act as if it is a new question to you, too. Answer in a tone of voice that is reassuring.
Ask questions that have a yes or no answer. An open-ended question like “How is your day going, Dad?” is an exception, as it is in the here and now.
The one thing you want to avoid is questions that require retrieving information from memory. You don’t want to put your family member on the spot so that he becomes embarrassed or angry with himself for not being able to remember. Strauss’ overall message is: “Don’t let the person become the disease. Worrying about what you say or do makes it much more difficult to convey love, respect and that you like being with them.” The book is full of examples of what to say and how to respond to a great number of common situations. It would make a great gift for any family or friend caring for someone with Alzheimer’s.
The bottom line
Alzheimer’s disease is devastating, and makes the person with the disease feel lost, frustrated and angry.
Communicating effectively with a person with Alzheimer’s symptoms requires calm, patience and care. Becoming frustrated will only agitate him or her further and make your visits difficult.
It’s important to accept the changes in your loved one that are caused by Alzheimer’s; doing so will go a long ways towards ensuring your time together is loving instead of frustrating.
Talking to Alzheimer’s by Claudia J. Strauss is a great resource for anyone caring for someone with Alzheimer’s symptoms. It provides advice about how to communicate with a person with Alzheimer’s, including ways to answer questions.