My dear friend Sylvia, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, was very agitated when I visited her at the nursing home. She was sitting in her wheelchair, banging it against the nurse’s medication cart. As I approached her I heard the nurse address her like this, “Sylvia you’re missing a shoe.” That meant nothing to Sylvia.
Later on, my dad tried to tell my friend, “This is where you can set your water glass.” Sylvia looked blankly at him and held on to her glass.
Even though my dad felt that he was clear in his explanation, at a certain stage of Alzheimer’s disease sufferers can no longer follow simple instructions. We also can’t expect them to take part in or to understand our conversations, especially in large groups.
Part of what I do through my speaking engagements is help people understand what it’s like to be with familiar faces, but still feel totally lost in everyday conversation.
The closest I have been to understanding how Alzheimer’s disease can impede communication was when I was on a semester abroad in Norway. I remember one such time where I was the one completely adrift in a crowd.
A friend invited me to a party where I met a number of his friends. My Norwegian language skills were good, but nowhere near good enough to keep up with the rapid-fire conversations that were happening all around me. I felt lost, confused and totally exhausted by the end of the evening.
To top it off, I took the wrong bus to get back to where I was staying. When I finally arrived at my apartment, I was in tears. My roommate greeted me with, “We’re only going to speak English and tomorrow I’m taking you to the American Lutheran Church.” That’s how she helped me regain my footing and feel connected again.
I offer three ways to help you stay connected with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s disease and struggles to communicate:
- Connect with your eyes—stand or sit at the same level with your loved one and look them in the eyes. Look at them when you’re talking to others, even if they aren’t able to contribute. Let them know that you see them and that they are included.
- Slow WAY down—speak clearly and in short phrases. Allow pauses in your sentences and space for them to respond. Their response may come out in “word salad,” but nod and acknowledge them; don’t correct them. If they have lost most of their ability to speak, refrain from asking them questions that require complex responses.
- Use touch—if they can’t form sentences, include them in the conversation by holding their hand or sitting close to them.
If you’re able to shift how you interact with a loved one suffering with Alzheimer’s disease, you also take care of yourself. You stay SANE* in a challenging caregiving world.
*Supported, Appreciated, Not Guilty and Energized, explained in my new edition of The Unexpected Caregiver