Last month I talked about a lecture that I attended, “Understanding the Person with Dementia: How to Communicate Effectively.” It was presented by Susan Stone who is with the Alzheimer’s Family Day Center (AFDC) in Fairfax, Virginia and does outreach and education. Communicating with a person with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a challenge which takes patience and understanding. This is a continuation of her lecture.

As we age, we all experience age-related brain changes, but for Alzheimer’s disease (AD) patients, the changes may be a lot more pronounced. They include:

  • Impaired hearing – especially higher frequencies
  • Lessened ability to determine the location of sound
  • Decreased vision
  • Slower thought processing
  • Slower in adjusting to light changes. (She suggested going into their bedroom earlier and opening the blinds).

Along with age-related brain changes, there are definite communication changes in dementia. They include the following:

  • Word finding problems (initially nouns and pronouns)
  • Frontal lobe damage
  • Word salads (stringing a lot of words together that don’t make sense)
  • Perseveration (repeating words over and over)
  • Mis-naming (but getting close) (An example she gave was someone trying to say Dairy Queen and used the word “king”).
  • Returning to original language (first to learn and last to lose)
  • Loss of ability to recognize and understand words

When approaching a person with dementia, use the person’s name and casually introduce yourself. Approach the person from the front and make sure you have eye contact. Touching the person also helps them to maintain attention. There’s less human touch as a person gets older so touching is important.

Finally, here are tips for initiating conversation.

  1. Speak slowly and clearly. Use e-x-p-a-n-d-e-d speech, but by all means treat them with dignity and not as though they are a child.
  2. Pause at the end of thoughts to give them time to process.
  3. State one request at a time.
  4. Always explain what you are going to do.
  5. Use lots of hand gestures.
  6. Watch the person closely for their reaction. Anxiety leads to anxiousness to regression.

Next month I will continue with more tips.

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A couple of years ago, I wrote about a wonderful Alzheimer’s disease (AD) resource in Fairfax County, Virginia located about 15 miles south of Washington, DC, the Alzheimer’s Family Day Center (AFDC). Not only are they a day care center for AD patients, but they have excellent programs for caregivers. I recently attended one such program on communicating with Alzheimer’s patients.

Titled “Understanding the Person with Dementia: How to Communicate Effectively,” it was presented by Susan Stone who is with AFDC and does outreach and education. Susan is an excellent communicator herself and interacts with the audience extremely well. I want to share some of her thoughts in this article and I will continue next month.

Because communication is only 7% verbal and the rest nonverbal, it is important to not limit your communication to just words. People with Alzheimer’s prefer not to talk on the phone and initiating phone calls is difficult. They have difficulty keeping up with conversation and may not understand your words. Their attention span is limited and they may have trouble finding the correct word. Furthermore, they may pick up only every three to four words.

For example, the conversation may sound like this:

___ WANT ___  ___  ___ GET ___  ___  ___ TAKE ___  ___  ___ . WE ___  ___  ___ APPOINTMENT ___  ___  ___  ___ WE ___  ___  ___ BEFORE ___  ___  ___ HOME.

NOW ___  ___ HURRY.

Here is the entire message:

I WANT you to GET up now and TAKE a good shower. WE have a doctor’s APPOINTMENT at 11:00 and WE can have LUNCH before we go HOME.

NOW please just HURRY!

Getting angry and adding a sharp tone of voice is not going to make this message any easier for the AD person to decipher. Here are some suggestions Susan offered:

  • Restating key words will help.
  • Give one direction at a time.
  • No rushing – time does not mean anything to an AD person.

Here are further suggestions repeating just the key words.

  • Get up. (Offer your hand).
  • Shower.

This is all the person needs to know at this point. They don’t really need to know about the appointment and having lunch is too far in the future to mention it now. You want them to take a shower and all they might remember is having lunch.

More suggestions will be coming next month. I hope this gives some understanding as to why communication is so challenging for those with dementia.

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