Three Ways to Talk to People Living with Alzheimer’s

July 29, 2013

stareFor people living with Alzheimer’s it is often difficult, if not impossible, to begin a conversation or engage with another person. When we try to talk with a person who has memory loss, we are often greeted with the thousand mile stare. There just seems to be nothing there. For family members and friends this is, of course, heartbreaking. Is there anything that can be done; is there any way to reach people who seem to be un-reachable?

The short answer is yes! The following three techniques are simple and effective ways to reach out to those living with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. Over the past ten years, we have used these techniques to create moments of joy and connection for dementia patients, the staff who care for them, and their loved ones.

  1. All of us feel a kinship with nature, whether we have lived in cities, small towns, or in the country. We like to smell flowers, look at autumn leaves, rub herbs between our fingers, put our ear up to sea shells. Placing something from the natural world into an Alzheimer’s patient’s hands can be a simple but powerful way to connect them to the world again. We have experienced wonderful conversations about gardens or sledding parties after simply handing someone living with dementia a flower, a bundle of herbs, or a cup of snow.
  2. Each of us has some very special parts of our lives that we treasure forever, even when we are living with Alzheimer’s. This special part of our lives may not necessarily be our occupation. A man may have been a plumber all of his life, but his real passion was for baseball. Knowing this, we can hand him a baseball glove, or a woolen pennant with his favorite team on it. Handling the glove, smelling the woolen pennant can unlock memories of baseball games he attended or the moment when he slid into home plate and won the game.

    People living with Alzheimer’s find it very difficult to begin conversations or engage with other people. They cannot remember how to start a discussion, they cannot begin to connect out of thin air. By giving them meaningful objects to hold, whether from nature or from their own lives, we give them a starting point, a way to connect again.

  3. Our third technique is to engage people with music. We encourage you to sing some favorite song or hymn with a person who has dementia. You may be quite surprised to find that a person who struggles to talk can remember all of the words to a favorite song and can sing with gusto! As well as singing circles, we also hold drum circles with Alzheimer’s patients. If a person has a heartbeat, they can play a drum. There is something magical in the way that music can break through the fog of dementia.

We have seen people who seemed lost in their own world suddenly wake up and be present with us by using these simple but highly effective techniques. We may have the people we care for with us for only a few moments, but in those moments, there can be real heartfelt connection once again. We measure success by a fleeting smile, the squeeze of a hand, wide awake eyes. In caring for someone living with Alzheimer’s, we encourage you to celebrate each moment of recognition, each gesture of connection, every laugh and every smile!


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