I’m Still Listening: Communication and Dementia
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I’m Still Listening: Communication and Dementia

I’m Still Listening: Communication and Dementia

No matter the level of one’s memory loss, stage of Alzheimer’s disease, or type of dementia, human connection and communication is important to overall well-being. Communication requires patience, understanding, and good listening skills. But often, even the most well-trained or educated caregiver gets frustrated or avoids communication altogether. July is Social Wellness Awareness Month, and it’s more important than ever to make sure those in our lives with limited communication abilities are still able to develop and maintain social relationships. 

Thoughts from an Aging Life Care Manager™

by Tracey A. Olson, LSCW, MSW, MBA, CASWCM – Aging Life Care Association™ Member

Keep-away is a game that was played in my neighborhood as a kid. I didn’t like it very much. One person would throw a ball to someone else, over the head of a person in between. The person in the middle rarely stood a chance of intercepting the throw; they were hopelessly excluded.

As I accompany older adults to the doctor’s office, I often see the same thing happening.  The doctor talks to me, but not the patient. The patient is left in the middle, feeling excluded and left out of the exchange. This happens far too many times, and it doesn’t seem to matter if the patient is able to understand the situation or not.  Even when an older adult is able to make their own decisions, they are often not spoken to directly.

Let’s say the patient has memory loss and they will not be making their medical decisions alone.  The patient should still be addressed directly.  It is important to include the person in the conversation — it is their health, their life.

Now, when this happens, I look at the person instead of the doctor so that the doctor will catch on.  And if the doctor doesn’t’, I say “Please address Jean.” There should be no games of keep-away at the doctor’s office.

This is not unique to doctors’ offices. While my client Jean can communicate and understand in the moment, she doesn’t remember conversations. Before our visit to the doctor, I met with Jean at her home to explain the upcoming appointment.  As we were meeting, Jean’s caregiver said, “Don’t bother. She won’t remember anyway.”

The caregiver made the comment in front of Jean as if she wasn’t even there.  Jean deserves respect as a person, and a patient, even if she is going to forget our conversation minutes later. In the moment, Jean could hear what was being said and possibly understand the meaning. She could have been part of the discussion.

Every person, regardless of memory or condition, deserves to be looked at in the eye and addressed directly. If they are able to communicate, I believe having a conversation gives a sense of comfort in the moment. That comfort is worth having the conversation, even if it isn’t remembered.

The Alzheimer’s Association offers these tips for best ways to communicate with someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Visit their website for more on Alzheimer’s and Communication.

  • Identify yourself.
  • Call the person by name.
  • Use short, simple words and sentences.
  • Speak slowly and distinctively.
  • Patiently wait for a response.
  • Repeat information or questions as needed.
  • Turn questions into answers.
  • Avoid confusing and vague statements.
  • Turn negatives into positives.
  • Give visual cues.
  • Avoid quizzing.
  • Write things down.
  • Treat the person with dignity and respect.
  • Convey an easygoing manner.

If you need help caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, dementia or memory loss, turn to an Aging Life Care Professional who has the experience to advocate and plan for the best possible care.

About the author: Tracey Olson, is an Advanced Professional Aging Life Care™ Expert, and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Masters Level.  Tracey takes a strengths perspective – not just identifying and focusing on needs, but also on strengths – when working with older adult clients and their families. Tracey’s independent care management practice, AgeWell Solutions, is located in the Chicago suburbs.

This blog is for informational purposes only and does not constitute, nor is it intended to be a substitute for, professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Information on this blog does not necessarily reflect official positions of the Aging Life Care Association™ and is provided “as is” without warranty. Always consult with a qualified professional with any particular questions you may have regarding your or a family member’s needs

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