Cutting Through the Fog: Communicating with a Loved One with Alzheimer’s

Communicating with a loved one with Alzheimer’s can be like trying to have a conversation with someone speaking another language: you both want to talk, but there’s this barrier preventing real understanding. Don’t give up! Good communication can decrease and even prevent many behavioral problems, and it makes life a little less frustrating.

Here is the number one tip to remember:
Treat your loved one as person with a disease. Look beyond the behavior to the person.

Your loved one and his or her experiences are still there; that life history will remain throughout this journey. If he was laid back before, he may be more so now. If she had high energy/anxiety, she may be tightly wound now as well. As you interact, keep in mind that everyone needs to have feelings validated; a person with Alzheimer’s is no different. In fact, memory loss and insecurity issues may mean that he or she needs that validation even more now.

For example: Your father has Alzheimer’s and often gets angry with your husband. They always got along well, but now your father blames him for everything. Think of your father’s anger as the dementia talking – not your father. Try saying, “I don’t blame you for being angry,” and then move on. What he is feeling is real to him, even if it’s not accurate for the situation.

You probably need to coach your husband, too. Let him know that your father’s anger isn’t against him personally; it is the nature of the illness, and “this too shall pass.” Remember that people with Alzheimer’s respond well to affirmation. When they do anything, praise them by saying “good job” or “thank you” no matter how insignificant it may seem to you.

Here are a few more ideas to help with communication:
• Lower the tone of your voice; a high pitch may be interpreted as anger.
• Smile and be pleasant.
• If your loved one seems to be in a “different reality” (such as talking about the past as if was happening now), try going there with them in conversation.
• Use gentle touch to get attention (hand on shoulder, hand on knee, hand on hand).
• Don’t argue; try to find something to agree about and then move on to a different topic.
• Don’t give orders or be condescending.
• Don’t talk about your loved one as if he isn’t there. You never know just how aware he may be.

More helpful communication strategies are available in our free indispensable Alzheimer’s Resource Kit available at