How to Talk to Seniors with Alzheimer’s and Dementia

With more than 5.8 million seniors living with Alzheimer’s disease, virtually all of our lives will be touched in some way by memory issues.  

While scientists aren’t yet sure what causes Alzheimer’s, its effects are unmistakable and often heartbreaking. The disease attacks the physical structures of the brain, causing neural connections to erode and regions of the brain’s cortex to shrink. Over time, individuals living with Alzheimer’s can experience challenges recalling and processing information that make communication difficult. 

how to talk to seniors with Alzheimer's man at sunsetThe loved ones of seniors with Alzheimer’s and dementia often feel a sense of loss as shared memories become harder to access and conversations don’t come as easily as they once did. 

Though this disease has the potential to make seniors feel very isolated, social connection is one of the most powerful tools we have for slowing cognitive decline

By understanding and addressing the communication challenges that come with Alzheimer’s, we can support seniors’ well-being and quality of life. 

Be patient with memory issues.

It’s important to realize that Alzheimer’s doesn’t just affect seniors’ ability to recall past events – it can also make it difficult to remember how to complete certain tasks or access words. The frustration that this can cause friends and family often pales in comparison with the frustration it causes the affected individual. 

Anyone who has ever tried to solve a problem under pressure knows that added stress doesn’t support clear thinking. Avoid rushing your loved one, taking over a project, or trying to finish their thoughts for them. 

Keep in mind that, although they are experiencing new challenges, your loved one is still the same person at their core. Listen when they speak, and work together to solve problems and find the right words. Give them the same respect and consideration in a conversation that you normally give others, and you’ll encourage more frequent and confident communication. 

how to talk to seniors with Alzheimer's and dementia lady with grandsonUse your conversation to help reorient your loved one.

Clarity and context are key when speaking to a loved one with memory issues. Many seniors living with Alzheimer’s are aware that they should be able to recall certain names and places, and are embarrassed when they struggle to do so. 

Preempt any questions or confusion by re-introducing yourself and others (for example, “I’m your niece, Jill,” or “This is your in-home care aid, Mark”) as though it is a natural part of your conversation.

Try to talk about one thing at a time, and avoid pronouns. The statement “Dinner is ready,” is much more clear than, “It’s ready,” even if the context seems obvious. These small changes can make it easier for seniors to participate in conversations. 

Avoid open-ended questions.

A huge part of dignity and respect in aging is ensuring that your loved one has the opportunity to make choices. However, for adults with dementia and Alzheimer’s too many choices can feel overwhelming. 

Rather than introducing an array of options (like “What would you like for breakfast?”) offer two or three choices. This approach supports your loved one’s independence without overcomplicating their daily routine. 

Redirect rather than correct.

It’s easy to imagine how frustrating it would feel to be constantly told that you’re wrong. Seniors with Alzheimer’s may misremember the names of people and places, or get confused about where they are, who is around them, or even what stage of life they are in. They may believe that a spouse who passed away long ago is still living or that their adult children are still small. 

Caregivers can be at a loss when their loved ones act in accordance with these beliefs by asking to speak to people who are no longer living, or insisting that they need to return “home” to prepare dinner. In these moments, trying to bluntly reorient your loved one is likely to make the situation much worse. 

As much as you can, try to live in your loved one’s world with them. If they are fixated on taking an action that would be unsafe,

 look for ways to redirect them while still being affirmative. For example, if your senior is insistent on driving, suggest that they finish watching a favorite show or have a snack before they leave. The shift in focus can sometimes resolve the issue. 

how to talk to seniors with Alzheimer's and dementia holding hands

Bring up happy memories.

Playing a favorite song, recreating an old recipe, or flipping through a photo album can help elderly Alzheimer’s and dementia patients reconnect with the people and things they love. 

Surrounding seniors with familiarity and warmth helps them feel grounded, even if they aren’t able to fully describe those memories. Encourage them to reminisce without getting hung up on specific facts or creating pressure to recall important events. Your loved one may surprise you with the level of detail they are able to add to certain memories. 

Take a break.

Caring for a loved one who is experiencing memory issues can be extremely taxing. It’s normal and expected to take time for yourself – in fact, it’s a critical part of being a good caregiver

Because maintaining a familiar environment is crucial to managing dementia, in-home respite care services can be extremely helpful. Compassionate care professionals can provide your loved one with support and companionship in the comfort of their own home, allowing caregivers to step away without worry. 

Taking steps to practice self-care and avoid burnout will help keep your bond with your senior loved one strong.