Q: My neighbor came over last week and said that his wife had taken off walking and he could not find her. We know she has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, but have never talked with them about it in detail. My husband helped him locate her and get her back home. Thankfully she was safe. What can we do to be more supportive? What is the best way to communicate with her when we see her outside?
A: Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other forms of dementia impact a person’s thinking, processing of information, judgment and ability to remember and recall information. Often, short-term memory or the ability to retain new information is impaired, while some long-term memories remain intact and hold a greater sense of familiarity to the person diagnosed. The important thing to remember is that she is a person living with a disease, just as someone might live with cancer or heart disease, only her brain is what is being impacted. She is still a person with needs for human and social interaction, and you can help provide that.
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One of the best things you can do to be supportive is to educate yourselves on the disease. Communication often becomes difficult for people with AD, because they have a hard time remembering things and can forget words and the meaning behind the words. Sometimes in a sentence they will use fill-in words to compensate. This may make it difficult to understand what they are trying to tell you. They also tend to lose their train of thought if the conversation is lengthy and any background noise can add to the confusion, creating a frustrating distraction. Here are some things you might try to connect with her:
- Always approach her from the front and make eye contact when talking.
- Watch her body language and facial expressions for cues to what she might be communicating.
- Try a gentle touch to guide her or redirect her.
- If you sense frustration, try changing the subject or offer a snack or activity.
- Try not to ask questions she cannot answer or say, “Don’t you remember?” which leads to frustration.
- Speak clearly with a pleasant tone.
- Be patient and give her time to express her feelings.
- Try not to correct or argue with her, but redirect to a more pleasant topic.
- Ask yes or no questions, instead of open-ended questions that might be more difficult to answer.
- Use simple, step-by-step directions without providing too much information at one time.
Phrase conversation and communication, such as:
- Instead of: “What would you like to wear today?” Try: “Would you like the red shirt or the blue shirt?”
- Instead of: “What would you like for lunch?” Try: “Would you like a turkey sandwich for lunch?”
- Instead of: “Don’t you remember me?” Try: “Hi, Ellen. I’m Susan, your neighbor.”
Your neighbor will need support in this journey with his wife. Keep the lines of communication open and encourage him to seek support. You can offer to stay with her while he attends a support group or just be a good listener when he needs to talk. If she truly gets lost or wanders off, don’t hesitate to get the local authorities involved. They can issue a silver alert to help find her. Taking the time to learn about this disease and being supportive, even in small ways, can truly make a big difference.
Readers may send questions to Natt, an Aging Life Care™ Professional, certified senior advisor and CEO of Aging Outreach Services. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.