Whether you are the caregiver of a family member or friend with Alzheimer's disease, or someone who visits them on a regular basis, you know that the illness has an impact on more than the afflicted person.  Even very early Alzheimer's can cause behavioral problems and stress for both parties.  A person with Alzheimer's may have a short temper and lash out at you when all you want to do is help.  Often you respond in a similar way, which may leave you feeling tremendous guilt.  The perplexing fluctuations in their mood and behavior can also add to the complicated mix of problems.

A person with Alzheimer's can’t help their actions but you can.  There are tools for modifying your response and even your initial approach to the person, which will help to turn things in a more positive direction.  Dealing with an Alzheimer’s patient requires equal amounts of respect and understanding on your part.  By offering both you’ll be helping not only the patient, but yourself as well.

Your View

Overall, one of the most important things you can develop is the ability to see from the patient’s perspective.  Imagine how frustrating it must be when you can’t recall information you’ve had at your fingertips all your life?  Imagine how frightening it is to know there’s something wrong with you and there’s nothing you can do about it.? Imagine how it feels to know your world has changed and you can no longer navigate it with confidence? Imagine being treated like a child, loosing complete independence because those around you no longer trust your abilities?  The mind of a person with Alzheimer's is filled with fear, stress, and uncertainty on a daily basis. 

Reassure Them of Their Worth

There are things you can do to alleviate the fear, stress and uncertainty.  Think of ways to make the Alzheimer's patient feel important.  What type of job or interests did they have in their younger years?  If they were a financial manager, maybe you could assign them a simple task involving money that you know they can complete.  Remind them of how good they’ve always been with finances and possibly how you learned from them.

A former gardener might enjoy helping you arrange flowers in a vase.  Someone who loved to cook could read you a recipe as you prepare it.  Or simply read it to them and ask if it sounds like a good dish.  Let them know their opinion is important. Finding a way to engage a person with Alzheimers through meaningful activity will have a calming effect on them and create an enjoyable experience for both of you.  They may not remember any of it tomorrow, but it doesn’t matter.  You can repeat it again.

Learn New Ways To Communicate

For Alzheimer's patients, there’s a wobbly bridge between memory and communication.  And without communication they lose their ability to connect with others.  It’s no wonder they feel so much pressure during simple conversations.  They not only worry about retrieving memories but the appropriate words to express their thoughts.

Any time you ask “Do you remember….” , the pressure is on.  Not being able to remember may make them angry or sad and the conversation suddenly takes a detour or comes to an abrupt end. 

The only thing that’s certain about a visit to someone with Alzheimer's is its unpredictability.  If it’s a good day and memories are flowing, conversing will be easy.  But you can’t depend on that scenario.  Before you arrive, why not plan the topics for conversation and the way in which you will address them?

Social graces have taught us all the right questions to ask a person to promote conversation but this is the time to put them aside.  Don’t ask a person with Alzheimer's to recall things, not even what they had for lunch.  Don’t ask,  “Do you remember when I was a kid and took the car without telling you?”  Instead of putting the burden on them, say, “I remember when I was a kid and I took the car without telling you but you found out. “  This kind of conversation doesn’t require anything from them.  If a memory does surface, they will join in, adding to your story.

If they don’t recognize you, asking “Don’t you remember me?” will only confuse them.  Identify yourself followed by a mention that you thought it would be a nice day for a visit.  Steer thoughts to the visit rather than them not knowing who you are.

Be Truthful

A person with Alzheimer's has a specific problem in their brain.  It doesn’t make them stupid or crazy.  They probably still have the ability to recognize insincerity or answers to questions intended to appease them.  If they ask why a dead relative didn’t come with you to visit, the last thing you want to tell them is that relative passed on years ago.  What purpose would it serve?  Instead, respond with an ambiguous answer like, “Uncle Lenny never liked driving too far from home.”

If you are challenged with the question, “Why can’t I remember?” be honest.  Say that you often have the same problem, and put the person at ease by suggesting the answer will come later as it sometimes does for you.

Join Them In Their Perception

When we deal with children who think they know how things work, it’s our job to correct them.  For the most part, they accept our explanations because we are in charge.  The same is not true of Alzheimer's patients.  They are adults with life experiences who now spend a portion of their time in a world of their own.  While they try to make sense of their current situation, they may think their children are still in grade school and they work at jobs they had decades ago.  Correcting them deprives them of their dignity and may only confuse and upset them.   In order to connect, you must temporarily join them in their world and center your conversation around their reality at the moment.   

You’ll find more suggestions and extremely valuable information to help you connect with Alzheimer’s patients in the book, “Talking to Alzheimer’s”.  It’s a small easy read, yet full of tools and ideas that will lead you to a pleasant and rewarding interaction.  One section contains a list of tailored conversation you can refer to minutes before a visit.   A Do’s and Don’ts section will help you deflect arguments and shift thoughts to positive ideas rather than negative ones, creating a less stressful visit.

When visiting a person with Alzheimer's remember to treasure their moments of clarity and let them know how much they are appreciated.  Those moments will provide you with warm memories and a good outlook for future visits.