Talking with Someone with Memory Issues

Tips from people who have been there

There’s nothing easy about having a loved one or friend with dementia or Alzheimer’s. It is heart wrenching and difficult. So many things are stolen… ripped away in painful ways. Simply trying to have a conversation with the person can be extremely challenging. Through no fault of their own, people with memory issues lose the ability to engage fully. Not only do they forget so much, but they can’t process information like we do.

You may find it helpful to speak with your loved one’s doctor for recommendations on how best to communicate with the person you care so much about. We’ve collected some tips about talking with someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s with input from people who have been there. We hope you find them useful.

You may want to try these suggestions…

  • Keep a positive tone in your voice. Even when a person with memory issues is unable to comprehend the meaning behind your words, he or she can recognize the mood behind the words. People with dementia sometimes mirror other people’s demeanor and behavior. Try to keep your voice evenly pitched and on the quieter side. Try to sound happy, friendly, and loving.

  • Introduce yourself. When your loved one doesn’t seem to recognize you, it can feel like a knife to the heart. However, to have a conversation, you must get beyond the pain. Introduce yourself and your relationship to the person. Then begin a conversation.

  • Start with an explanation. Before beginning to talk about a subject, it can help to familiarize the person with some background about whatever it is you are going to be speaking about. Don’t just jump right in. Ease in slowly to help the person understand and follow the conversation.

  • Listen. It can be frustrating, but try not to interrupt the person. Let your loved one complete his or her thoughts even if you’ve heard the same thing a million times before. People with memory problems often find comfort in telling certain stories they remember. Listening to the story as if you’ve never heard it before can help create a positive atmosphere for your conversation.

  • Be patient. If you remain patient, calm, and reassuring, it may help the person communicate better and more easily. Wait for your loved one if he or she seems to be struggling to come up with a word, name, or answer. Don’t rush the person. Try not to feel like you have to fill in all the quiet spaces. People with memory problems often need time to gather their thoughts before speaking or responding.

  • Always be respectful. No adult wants to be treated like a child, even someone who can’t remember much. Try to speak with your loved in a comforting but adult manner… even when he or she looks at you blankly or becomes agitated. There may be times when your loved one acts childish, but never forget that the person is not a child. You are speaking with an adult.

  • Don’t bother correcting something the person strongly believes is true. Most likely, there will be times when your loved one firmly believes something you know for a fact is wrong. Try to let it go. Unless it impacts the person’s safety, attempting to change his or her mind is probably not worth it. Your correction will probably only agitate the person.

  • Pay attention to nonverbal clues. When people with memory issues are unable to verbalize how or what they are feeling, they often demonstrate their emotions in other ways. If your loved one’s actions or attitude are telling you something, try to respond accordingly. If you notice body language that implies the person is feeling down, frightened, or angry, you may be able to say or do something comforting to help. Like the rest of us, he or she may just need some support and reassurance.

  • Use more than words. There may be times when your facial expressions and physical touch can connect with your loved one far better than any words you might say. Holding hands, a rub on the back, or a light pat might be the best way to show your love and caring. But, always make sure the person welcomes and feels comfortable with whatever forms of physical touch you use.

  • Come up with activities to engage the person. If your loved one is not in the mood or condition to have a conversation, try involving the person in a simple activity appropriate to his or her abilities. Perhaps reading a book aloud would be enjoyable for you both. Or a craft project might be fun. Just sitting together watching your loved one’s favorite television show can create a bond and feeling of togetherness.

  • Avoid current events. Always keep in mind that your loved one is probably more comfortable talking about the past than the present. People with memory problems may be able to remember what happened 50 years ago with remarkable clarity but might have no idea about what is going on today. Understand that it could be difficult or even impossible for your loved one to discuss issues related to “here and now.”

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