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Alzheimer’s diseases and communicating with your family – tips and tricks

Alzheimer’s disease brings about many challenges for the person diagnosed and for their loved ones, and one of the biggest changes to negotiate is a change in communication

Due to nerve cell failure, a person living with Alzheimer’s may find it increasingly difficult to express themselves, while their understanding of what others are saying to them also usually decreases. As the disease progresses, the skills we take for granted – speech, reading and writing – are likely to fade, meaning family and friends may find it harder to communicate with them and to understand their needs. 

Each person’s condition varies though, depending on how their brain is affected by Alzheimer’s.

Dementia Australia, the peak body for Australians living with dementia, including Alzheimer’s, says that changes to communication skills can range from interrupting the speaker to failing to respond to someone talking to them.

A person living with Alzheimer’s may struggle to find the right name of an object or even a person well-known to them. Some people with Alzheimer’s may lose their ability to express emotions as they normally would.

Communicating with care

Experts say it’s essential that family members, friends and carers do their best to adapt the way they communicate to accommodate the person living with Alzheimer’s because although their ability to express themselves may be reduced, they will be aware of frustration or lack of respect in the way others speak to them. 

“We want to avoid creating stigma. We need to treat the person with Alzheimer’s as a normal part of our social life,” Associate Professor Michael Woodward, Director of Aged Care Research and the Memory Clinic at Austin Health, says. “We need to recognise that there is dignity in Alzheimer’s, it’s not the end of the journey.”

Assoc Prof Woodward particularly notes that it’s better not to criticise your loved one when they can’t remember something, and instead help to prompt their memory with photos or videos.

“Rather than the carer saying ‘you can’t remember you told me that?’ or ‘you can’t remember what we did last week?’, they need to show pictures and say, ‘look, these are great pictures of you dancing with your granddaughter,’ or ‘your speech about your mum’s achievements and your professional life was great’, or ‘the fact that you ran the marathon in less than four hours is amazing’,” he explains. 

Use appropriate body language

The National Institute on Aging in the US provides recommendations on how to aid communication with a person living with Alzheimer’s in order to minimise confusion and allow for a better relationship. 

Just sitting in front of the person at the same level can help to maintain concentration and minimise confusion during the conversation. The institute also recommends showing emotions, such as smiling when saying that you are happy, and perhaps even holding hands to make the person feel more comfortable in communicating. 

Make sure to also acknowledge when the person with Alzheimer’s gives the correct responses, the US institute advises, to reassure them that they are doing well and to encourage further conversation.

Helpful ways to speak

If your loved one doesn’t always respond when spoken to, Dementia Australia recommends speaking clearly and at a normal speed so they can follow your lips and gauge what you’re saying. And when speaking about a particular person, it’s helpful to put the name into context, for example saying ‘your daughter, Mary’.

If you find they are struggling to respond because they can’t think of the right word, you should give them a hint to help jog their memory and get them back on track, but don’t start to raise your voice.

“Make sure distractions in the background are minimised and try not to present them with very complicated information,” Assoc Prof Woodward suggests. “Just say to them, ‘look it’s great to be with you, mum, I remember the last time I came here we sang a song,’ and sing that song with them again, rather than saying ‘What? you can’t remember we used to sing every time?’.

“The carer needs to communicate with the person with Alzheimer’s in a way that’s not making them feel lessened by their loss of memory.”