Communicating Despite Alzheimer's: 9 Tips And A Storytelling Game

November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month. While it used to be thought that memory loss was a normal part of aging, we now understand that aging doesn’t automatically mean memory loss. Plus, Alzheimer’s disease, along with other causes of dementia, can happen to people in middle life.

With as many as 5.1 million Americans who may have Alzheimer’s disease, and its increasing incidence as our population ages, dealing with dementia will become more prevalent. Communicating with someone with Alzheimer’s can be frustrating, but here are some tips from the experts:

1.  Find a time and place to talk where there aren’t a lot of distractions or noise.

2.  Speak clearly and naturally. Keep your voice calm and warm – no “babytalk”

3.  Maintain eye contact. Smile. A gentle touch and holding hands will convey love and understanding.

4.  Talk about one thing at a time. Don’t jump around between subjects.

5.  Use names instead of pronouns. For instance, if you phone your Grandma say, “Hi Grandma, It’s Jane, your granddaughter.”

6.  Don’t correct inaccuracies. Years ago caregivers were encouraged to correct misunderstandings. Now the recommendation is to “play along” (validation) and redirect your loved one. Know that the emotions they are expressing are real, and the story they are telling is real to them. For instance, if Mom is trying to get dressed to go to work (but she’s been retired for decades), say, “Okay, Mom, but I just made your breakfast. Let’s eat first then I’ll make sure you get to work.”

7.  Your loved one may be more able to talk about things that happened in the past, as opposed to more recent memories. For instance, ask about what school was like when he or she was a kid. Or memories about their spouse.

8.  Listen actively and politely ask for clarification if you don’t understand.

9.  Have patience and give your loved one time to process what you’re saying.

If you need a conversation starter, try looking at photos together, either family photos or a picture from a magazine and talk about those. Encouraging your loved one to make up a story about the photo is fine. Actually, studies using this storytelling "game" show that participants seem happier and better able to communicate in general when there’s no pressure to stick to facts.

How GMC Can Help

Don’t assume all memory loss is Alzheimer’s. If a loved one is showing memory loss, fuzzy thinking or behavioral changes, a complete physical is in order. Sometimes side effects from medicines, sleep problems, dehydration or other things may be causing memory issues. If it is, indeed, dementia or Alzheimer’s, your physician can help you find community and online resources for education and help. To find a physician near you, visit


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