Communicating with Alzheimer's and Dementia

By Doug Sheaffer

Situations in which Alzheimer’s or other dementia is a player often become arenas for frustration.

We won’t use this space today to go into early warning signs of Alzheimer’s, what it looks like and where research is at. Most of this information can be found at among a lot of other data. For now, let’s try to look into circumstances in which it’s already an established reality.

As people, we tend not to think too much about how we talk to each other (sometimes less than others), it’s, as mentioned above, automatic. At some point in the deterioration of Alzheimer’s, it becomes less that and more planned conversation. The adage of “think before you speak” can become very, very real.

One thing (out of many things) to keep in mind is that words and how they’re used will change. It may be that Mom/Dad may ask for one thing while meaning another, for example. Or throw in well-worn terms like thingamajig or doohickey. Names may be replaced by “you know” or some other less than helpful term.

It becomes our job to change how we talk in order to communicate — sometimes a daunting task.

So let’s look at just a few tips from folks who have been there, and experienced what works — and what doesn’t:

  • Reduce noise. Background sounds (TV, radio, other conversations, etc) may make it more difficult for Mom/Dad to “get” what’s being said.

  • Speak in shorter, more direct sentences or questions. Beware lapsing into baby-talk. It doesn’t help and many find it demeaning.

  • Resist the temptation to interrupt and/or finish what you think they’re trying to say.

  • LISTEN. Allow lots of time for any answers to questions

  • OBSERVE. What kind of movements are happening? Can you tell anything from body language? Is Mom/Dad pointing at something while talking?

  • It’s OK to ask if you’ve guessed correctly in identifying what’s needed.

  • You don’t have to be right. As mentioned last time out, ask yourself “Does it really matter?”

  • Realize that if a question is asked repeatedly, it may still seem like the first time to Mom/Dad


I realize that all of this is easier to write about than to do on a daily basis, and as I said, these aren’t what seems good to me, but are tips from those who have lived there.

And—usually the last priority for a caregiver — try to take time for YOU. Friends, family, or other caregivers need to be used if possible. It does no one any good for the one providing care to hit the wall.

Don’t know where to start in taking care of yourself? Try our Family Caregiver Support Program (FCSP). Lots of information, resources and just plain help. Contact Eric Nessa at 1 866 582 1485, or email at You can also contact either of the offices below and we’ll make the connection for you.

Hopefully, you’ll not have to walk this path all alone.

Information & Assistance: Long Beach: 642-3634, 888-571-6558; Raymond: 942- 2777, 888-571-6557