How to Listen to an Alzheimer’s Patient

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Mother and daughterAs the son and former caregiver of a mother with Alzheimer’s, Bob DeMarco understands the challenges of maintaining clear communication with Alzheimer’s patients. According to Bob, it’s easy to become “exasperated, confused, frustrated, and sometimes angry” by some of the things our loved ones with Alzheimer’s say.

Happily, in his recent article from Alzheimer’s Reading Room, Bob describes his experience using compassionate listening to maintain better communication with his mother — and improve her sense of safety and security to boot. Best of all, he offers practical exercises other caregivers can use to do the same.

Here’s what Bob suggests:

Step 1: Listen Calmly

To begin, Bob asks caregivers to ask themselves honestly whether they are “really listening” to their loved ones, or simply taking their words at face value and reacting emotionally.

For practice, he encourages caregivers imagine themselves “calmly leaning up against the wall and listening to [their] Alzheimer’s patient” during a particular incident and/or recurrent episode.

Step 2: Take Note

Next, Bob suggests caregivers “start paying very close attention to the things [their] loved ones with Alzheimer’s repeat often.” For Bob’s mother, it was the idea that she wanted to “go home” to Philadelphia where she lived as a child.

Step 3: Put the Pieces Together

The final step is to see past the words themselves and recognize the emotional weight they carry for the patient.

In Bob’s case, by thinking like a detective and connecting his mother’s words with her body language, Bob was able to make a miraculous discovery:

“It finally dawned on me that [my mother] wasn’t really saying ‘I want to move back to south Philly;’ instead she was trying to tell me she wanted to feel safe and secure.”

To address this, Bob began focusing on positive verbal reinforcement to improve her sense of comfort in her living space. “I also tried to put my arm around Dotty, my head up against her head, and reassure her as often as I could,” he explains.

Before long, Dotty stopped saying she wanted to go home.

But it was only after Bob started truly listening that he became able to successfully address his mother’s needs. “Once I figured out how to look beyond the obvious and listen to what Dotty was saying… I found that I was no longer disconcerted, frustrated, or angered by her words.”

When it comes to Alzheimer’s care, sometimes it’s only by taking a step back that we can take a step forward.

Read the rest of Bob’s article.

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G. H. was raised in Minnesota, but currently calls Seattle her home. She's a blogger, editor, and journalist, and she's written everything from news reports to restaurant reviews. If she's not putting pen to paper, G. H. is probably experimenting in the kitchen, chilling out on her yoga mat, or running through a city park.