Those who have a family member or friend with Alzheimer’s disease probably know full well that communication can be a challenge. The disease lowers the normal brain function involved in comprehending and listening and interferes with a person’s ability to clearly express their ideas and thoughts.
As people with Alzheimer’s progress into the late stage of the disease (known as Alzheimer’s dementia), the problem escalates. Late stage Alzheimer’s brings with it its own set of obstacles to overcome, including stark communication problems. During the later stages of the disease, a speech pathologist may be involved, to help caregivers with tips on communicating effectively with people who have dementia. But, what about the earlier stages of the disease, when the person with the disease is aware of memory problems?
Alzheimer’s Communication Problems
Caregivers and family members want to be sensitive to their loved one with Alzheimer’s, but how direct should one be? Where is the line between giving honest feedback and hurting a loved one’s pride? Here are some tips from the experts:
Common communication problems that may be noticed during any stage of Alzheimer’s include:
- Difficulty recalling the names of specific places, people or objects
- Having difficulty putting words together in a logical sequence
- Losing one’s train of thought frequently
- Refusal to speak or speaking less often because of frustration
- Repeatedly using the same phrases or words, over and over
- Reverting to using the language first spoken (native language)
Communication Tips for Each Stage of Alzheimer’s
During the early stage of Alzheimer’s, a person may be able to communicate and socialize reasonably well. But, oftentimes the person with Alzheimer’s feels overwhelmed on the inside — particularly in large groups or in noisy environments. They may unknowingly repeat themselves, conveying the same idea or story over and over.
Recent studies show that socialization promotes Alzheimer’s prevention. It’s important for caregivers and loved ones to encourage as much social interaction as possible for a person with the disease, but what can be done to promote effective communication with a person through each stage of Alzheimer’s?
Here are some tips:
- Allow plenty of time for the person with Alzheimer’s to respond to conversations, don’t interrupt and try to finish sentences.
- Be aware that some medications can compound communication problems.
- Discuss communication problems directly with the person with Alzheimer’s.
- Don’t automatically assume the person with Alzheimer’s cannot communicate normally, just because of the disease diagnosis.
- Educate others on how to effectively interact with the person with the disease.
- Never distance yourself from a person with Alzheimer’s due to communication issues. Supporting the person with the disease is important, even if it means simply being present.
- Talk to the physician anytime there is a sudden worsening of communication.
- Try various forms of communication (such as writing) when verbal interaction is not working.
- Use humor when appropriate to help lighten the mood, one family reported that humor was a very effective coping mechanism — and laughter is good for the brain!
With advances in Alzheimer’s research, the disease is being diagnosed earlier than ever before in history. The result is more people who are aware of having memory loss (in the early stage of the disease). Communicating effectively with someone who is aware of memory loss problems may require the adoption of some new tools and a lot of patience. Caregivers and family members may find themselves walking a fine line between giving helpful feedback and being quiet — allowing the person with Alzheimer’s to find the right words for self-expression.
Never correct the person with the disease when communication mistakes are made and allow for enough time for your loved one to find the right words. Then, mirror back what you heard in a question form. Remember to also observe for signs of non-verbal cues; oftentimes people with communication problems use non-verbal modes of expression, as they struggle to find the words they are trying to say.
Study Shows Exercise Improves Communication Through Each Stage of Alzheimer’s
A recent study at the University of Miami was conducted by Rita Freidman PHD, RN, and Ruth M. Tappen, RN., involving 30 nursing home participants, diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s (in the moderate to severe stages). The 10-week study aimed at finding out if planned walking could help to improve communication performance in people with Alzheimer’s).
The study participants were divided into 2 different groups. One group participated in planned walking (while communicating) for 30 minutes, three times each week. The comparison group did not walk or perform any other type of physical activity, but rather, they engaged in conversation only.
The study authors discovered that when group participants walked as they conversed, communication improved significantly, compared to the study group that just conversed without engaging in any type of physical activity. The study revealed that in just 10 weeks, communication performance improved significantly in the planned walking group with Alzheimer’s, compared to the participants with the disease who only had conversations. The study data suggests that planning a regular schedule (at least 30 minutes, 3 times per week) of walking while conversing with a person with Alzheimer’s, is an effective tool for improving communication performance, in people diagnosed with moderate to severe stages of the disease.
Which communication tips were most effective in your family through each stage of Alzheimer’s? We’d like to hear more about your experiences in the comments below.