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Bridging the Alzheimer’s Communication Gap

By , 9:39 pm on

If we meet for coffee, you’ll probably ask me what I did over the weekend. I might ask to borrow the book you mentioned last week. Neither of these exchanges would be possible for someone in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD).  We need to communicate differently to reaching people living with AD.

The Alzheimer’s Association has a comprehensive guide for communication; here are a few key points:

  • Avoid asking, “don’t you remember?” and testing the person.
  • Be patient; people with dementia have a harder time expressing themselves and processing what you’ve said.
  • Refrain from correcting them.
  • Seek to understand the feelings behind their words.

To maintain connection, we have to adapt communication further and accept and support a person in their unique experience of AD.  Bobbi Adams, a retired Lincoln teacher, recommends encouraging the flow of memories without expectations for exactness or specifics.  Bobbi and her husband Rod, created the picture book, “My World,” to help families connect to their loved one through positive memories. My World’s photographs have universal appeal, covering different times in a person’s life. Ms. Adams says she used early versions of the book with her own mom, “to spark memories of happy and pride-filled times.”She suggests, “Look at the photos with your loved one; ask‘did you ever go…? ever see…?’ to ignite memories.  Even if you tell the story instead of your loved one, s/he benefits from the positive feelings of your time together.Use this book to engage your loved one, with no expectations for their ability to read or explain anything.” Unlike looking at a personal photo album, My World’s pictures can be a gateway to honor a person’s experiences, with no pressure to remember who was in the photograph, or where or when it was taken.

TimeSlipsTM is another photo-oriented tool for connection.  These photos spur imagination by showing people in action.  The creator, Ann Basting, of the University of Wisconsin’s Center on Aging, seeks to improve the quality of life for both the person with memory loss and the caregiver. Ms. Basting believes her program, sometimes conducted in a group setting, helps those with AD tell us who they are by placing them in the role of storyteller. Clayton Freeman, of the Alzheimer’s Association in Omaha, relayed this experience:

A man looked at the TimeSlipsphoto of a baby sitting in a large doctor’s bag and said, “He’s bringing the briefcase to the Indian Reservation.  He’ll see the baby there.”  The man’s daughter explained her dad was telling the story of his 30 years working as an agent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Research shows both the person with memory loss and their caregiver benefit from low-pressureengagement.  Such activities are an important part of person-centered care because they support caregivers’ efforts to understand the person with Alzheimer’s and their history, and what kind of engagement works especially for them.  These photo tools help people see “beyond the loss, to recognize strengths,” from and “to meet [people with AD] where they are,” as explained by Ms. Adams.

Special thanks to Ms. Adams ( for her help and to

Lee Nyberg seeks to help families care for loved ones with Alzheimer’s through education and her company, Home Care Assistance.  Home Care Assistance provides in-home senior care, helping seniors maintain their independence, dignity, and control and giving their families peace of mind. For more information, visit or call 402-261-5158 to talk to Amy.