Better Alzheimer’s Communication Using the CARE Method

Kristen Hicks
By Kristen HicksFebruary 18, 2019

Couples that have spent years, or even decades together, learn how to communicate easily and effectively. Unfortunately, after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, that communication no longer works. You can’t depend on the same communication strategies and you can’t expect the spouse you’re speaking with to recognize the same experiences and references that used to serve as important parts of your relationship.

Although this is a difficult transition for couples to go through, there are some Alzheimer’s communication tips that can help during this time. See these tips and read more about using the CARE Method to communicate with a spouse with the disease.

Alzheimer’s Caregiver Communication

Communicating effectively with people with Alzheimer’s is a skill — one that professional caregivers may be trained in, but family caregivers rarely are.

The idea that you would need special training in how to communicate with a partner is an idea some partners may struggle with, but your relationship with a spouse will be different as the disease takes hold and you have to learn to adapt.

Christine L. Williams, DNSc, principal investigator of the CARE (Caring About Relationships and Emotions) Study, explains, “Caregivers are not experts in communicating with people with dementia. Sometimes they choose strategies they think are helpful but may be ineffective.” Even worse, she notes, “they often give up communicating with their less verbal partners because benefits are not as obvious.”

How the CARE Method Works

Recognizing that partners face unique challenges when caring for a spouse with Alzheimer’s, researchers at the Florida Atlantic University set out to create a study on how to help equip spousal caregivers with the skills they need to better communicate with their loved ones.

The CARE Study was a 10-week experiment that combined coaching, role-playing and a manual with weekly modules to teach couples the skills they needed to understand each other again.

The study focused on improving facilitative (or helpful) communication for the caregiver and sociable communication for the person with Alzheimer’s. They also aimed to reduce unhelpful communication behaviors such as criticisms or quizzing a partner’s memories, or otherwise disengaging.

Researchers met with the couples each week to help them with the lessons, offering role play for caregivers to become more comfortable with the CARE method.

As a result, the researchers found that the couples were much more comfortable communicating with each other at the end of the 10 weeks. In particular, they found that the spouse with Alzheimer’s showed a statistically significant improvement in their social communication. They made eye contact more often, stayed engaged and on topic longer and joked more with their partners.

Ways to Put the CARE Method to Use

One of the big takeaways of this study is that spouses of people with Alzheimer’s can’t expect to keep doing things in their relationship the same way. You have to put some effort into learning how to be in a relationship anew, no matter how many years you were together before the diagnosis.

  1. For instance, when you mention something your partner doesn’t remember, either drop it or describe your memory of it to them as a story. Don’t try to coax the memory out of them.
  2. Pay careful attention to how your partner responds to the things you do and say — both verbally and nonverbally.
  3. Finally, look for activities you can do together where their memory doesn’t matter.

Your relationship can still be full and rewarding, even though what it looks like will change. You just have to make an effort to learn how to talk to your partner on their level.

Are you interested in using the CARE Method to communicate with a senior loved one with Alzheimer’s? What other communication techniques have you used while caregiving? We’d like to hear your stories and suggestions in the comments below.

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Kristen Hicks

Kristen Hicks

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