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Four Ways To Communicate & Connect With Someone With Dementia or Alzheimer's

March 17, 2020

Editorial Review Phoebe Stoye, A.B. in Neurobiology, Harvard College
Clinical Review Felicia Greenfield, MSW, LCSW
The Penn Memory Center

It can feel impossible to connect and communicate with your loved one when they aren't able to hold a normal conversation anymore. Whether they are unable to communicate or confused, these are some simple ways to make your time together a quality experience that will put both of you at ease.

Strategy 1 To Communicate & Connect: Read aloud

Whether it's a book, newspaper, poetry, or old letters, reading materials give you a way to fill the silence and be present with your loved one. While your loved one may or may not be able to follow the story, hearing the sound of your voice speaking to them is oftentimes comforting, regardless of their level of comprehension. For some, reading can take away the pressure for your loved one to communicate through talking and calm the anxiety and behaviors that are rooted in loneliness or boredom.

Strategy 2 To Communicate & Connect: Share a snack or meal

Sharing food gathers people together more effectively than any other social event. Even having a small bowl of ice cream or a cup of coffee together—enjoying food or drinks with your loved one will remind them of pleasant past memories (if you want ideas for brain-healthy and delicious meals, read here). People with later-stage dementia will sometimes have decreased appetites, so if they don't eat as much or push the food away, don't be discouraged—it's not personal. Remember to keep the food simple and easy to eat. In later-stages of Alzheimer's, your loved one might struggle with using a fork and bringing it to their mouths to eat. You may need to remind them to go ahead and drink a glass of milk, or use their spoon to eat ice cream.

(Editor's Note: If you want to estimate what stage of Alzheimer's your loved one is at, see Caretalk's clinican-created tool for Alzheimer's stages & treatments.

Strategy 3 To Communicate & Connect: Do Chores

Giving work to someone who is ill may seem counter-intuitive, but those with memory deficits often struggle with feeling useless or bored. Simple chores that are safe and within the person's physical abilities can give them a sense of accomplishment. Folding laundry, stapling or shredding paperwork, stamping envelopes, vacuuming, or washing dishes together can provide an enjoyable time of activity and a sense of teamwork. Here are a few Alzheimer's-friendly activity ideas for your loved one.

Strategy 4 To Communicate & Connect: Pamper your loved one

This includes men as well! Whether that be combing Mom's hair, painting Mom's nails, giving your husband Dave a fresh hot towel shave, or giving a hand massage to Aunt Liz—pampering makes your loved one feel relaxed, clean, and cared for, and gives you the chance to spend purposeful time together. You will need to be thoughtful about your loved one's tolerance of different sensations. Clipping nails, or even the sensation of water, may be unexpected and startling. Move slowly and be sure to explain what you're doing throughout the process in an even tone of voice. With some preparation and practice, you'll both look forward to your "salon" days in no time!

People with Alzheimer's often can't be the friend, spouse, parent or sibling they used to be. It's a condition that isolates the individual from the comforting communication and connection we often take for granted. Remember that your presence is the best thing you can give to your loved one, and what shape that takes is up to you.