Alzheimer's Phone Problems: Little Object, Big Headaches


Last updated: October 13, 2009
Bat Phone
Image by Phillie Casablanca used under the creative commons attribution license.

Sometimes it's the little things that get you with Alzheimer's. Phone challenges, for example. Difficulty using the telephone is an early sign of Alzheimer's disease. But even once you already know someone has dementia, phone issues can be an ongoing source of trouble.

Any of the following "ring a bell" in your house?

  • Not recognizing the voice on the other end.

Before she died at 99, my grandmother's deafness had made our weekly phone calls harder as the years went on. But between my shouting and repeating, we somehow managed to have a talk that made us both feel good. Then sometime in her early 90s, Alzheimer's disease made her less likely to answer a ringing telephone, and when she did, she didn't always understand who I was. Eventually it got too hard, and looking back, was sadly the factor that changed our relationship most.

  • Not recognizing the phone.

Another personal story: My siblings and I began to expect the same drill every time we called home. Moments after answering the phone and saying hi, our mom would say, off to the side in an increasingly agitated tone, "Dear, pick up the phone...no, not that one...that's the TV remote!...no, that's the other TV remote...yes, that one...your daughter's on the phone...." It was funny the first time, and then more and more worrisome as it went on. My dad had then only seemed "forgetful" to us. In his defense, all those black wands with buttons do look a bit alike, but this wasn't a case of occasional misidentification. In hindsight, his telephone confusion was a clear sign of Alzheimer's.

  • Not saying anything at all.

Gary Joseph Leblanc, who writes a [caregiving column] (http://www2.hernandotoday.com/content/2009/oct/08/hb-telephones-and-alzheimers/health/) for the Tampa Tribune, deserves a shout-out for bringing up this topic of Alzheimer's phone issues, in a reminiscence about his father. His Dad, who had Alzheimer's, would answer the phone at the bookstore they ran together, and remain completely voiceless before hanging up. When asked who it was, "he'd just nonchalantly respond, 'Heck if I know.'"

  • Dialing 911.

LeBlanc also mentions this risk: Lonely people with dementia who dial 911 just to have someone to talk to. (Maybe because it's an easy and ingrained number?) He also mentions his dad randomly punching numbers which led to accidental international calls.

  • Picking up the extension to listen in.

Later, when my dad lived with my brother, I'd suddenly notice a raspy breathing while I was chatting with him or his wife. Turns out Dad would sometimes pick up an extension but not announce himself. He wasn't being sly; he simply lacked the wherewithal to join the conversation but liked to listen to us. Of course I always asked to talk to him anyway after I'd get the scoop from my brother, but I learned to ask them to make visual contact on Dad's activity before we discussed any nitty-gritty details about how he was really doing.

  • Not taking messages.

Another early-stage problem is that someone might seem to manage phone use just fine "“ but is incapable of writing anything down or remembering to tell anyone else in the house there was a call.

  • Calling randomly and often.

Sometimes people with dementia remember long-dialed numbers (or how to use speed-dial) and fall into a groove of calling an adult child, friend, doctor's office, or some other target over and over, often at inappropriate times, a behavioral tic.

So what can you do?

How to best deal with Alzheimer's phone problems depends on your specific situation. Some ideas to consider:

  • Switch to cell-only service, if you live in the same house as someone with Alzheimer's.
  • Place phones only in the rooms where the person who has Alzheimer's doesn't go (for example, in your bedroom and in a landing at the top of the stairs).
  • Use call-forwarding so that home calls go to your cell.
  • Turn down ringers. This may prevent the phone from being answered but not prevent outgoing calls.
  • Use caller ID to follow up on who phoned.
  • Consider an easy-to-use model like this [Memory Phone] (http://store.nexternal.com/shared/StoreFront/default.asp?CS=ageless&StoreType=BtoC&Count1=573330104&Count2=490470528&ProductID=40&Target=products.asp) which has visual-cue buttons so the user can easily dial family members or emergency help (for people in earlier disease stages).
  • Another option: a [dialless phone] (http://store.nexternal.com/shared/StoreFront/default.asp?CS=ageless&StoreType=BtoC&Count1=573330104&Count2=490470528&ProductID=40&Target=products.asp), which receives calls but doesn't permit dialing "“ a possible substitute for those who like to call at all hours.
  • Realize that not being able to dial for help or emergency services is not merely a sign of Alzheimer's but a sign that someone may no longer be able to live alone.

Alzheimer's phone problems can be annoying -- and, even more important, dangerous.

Was this blogpost helpful?

12 Comments So Far. Add Your Wisdom.

about 1 month ago

We suspend mom account...during times when the caregivers are at our home..they use the landline...we activate again when one of is home...so we know who she is calling. Otherwise she calls at inappropriate times and banks, cousins, and reports that she has been kidnapped...we are taking her money whatever. She gets mad at the person she is calling


over 1 year ago

Where can you get the person to person phone attachment? We have problems with mother calling 911, the bank to complain someone is taking her money, giving out personal infromation,such as she is a widow, 88 years old, lives alone, anyone coming to the door is welcome, (scary thought) don't lock my doors, etc. It would be wonderful to have the person to person attachment to prevent such things happening. At this point in time it is dementia and she is required by law to have 24/7 supervision, which I do. But attempting to block callers, and her phone use to unknown persons causes verbal and sometimes physical aggression toward me. This blog has been very informative, keep it up.


over 1 year ago

My mother calls repeatedly in quick succession, but when I answer she hangs up. Then she accuses me of hanging up on her. There are days when I feel crazier than she is.


about 2 years ago

I am the caregiver for my beloved wife since four years. Therefore I know the phone problem to a great extent. As a remedy I wrote a small app for Smartphones, which I have published recently for free. It works rather fine, here. The Smartphone is untouched on the table and the alzheimer patient can speak off easily. Unwanted calls are blocked. Calling is carried out just by pressing the associated picture of pre-selected persons. Maybe it helps other caregivers, too. See https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.AlzheimerPhone.com


over 3 years ago

Hi vonny, that's a tough question! That kind of behavior can be quite difficult to handle. If you like, you can ask your question in our Ask & Answer section located here: (http://www.caring.com/ask).


over 3 years ago

How do you stop your mother from calling over and over again. She starts sometimes at 7 or 8am in the morning,it can go on till at least sometimes 8 or 8:30 at night if no one stays in the room and talk to her. And sometimes she will slip out and go to the phone in the kitchen and call. She called my brother at 5:30am in the morning.She calls my house, my borther house, my cousin house everyday. Sometimes she calls our phone like 20 to 30 times a day..and we are at the point of not knowing what to do. She does not remember that she is calling over and over again. You feel bad telling her to stay away from the phone..but we are at our ends and dont know what to do to keep from hurting her feeling. Help!!


over 4 years ago

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often. Lucy http://dataentryjob-s.com


over 4 years ago

I purchased a device that works as a callerID but is a database (small unit) connected to the phone and answering machine. My mom's problem isn't using the phone-she leaves it alone. My problem was her answering it and giving out inappropriate information. The "Person-to-Person" device holds phone numbers that are allowed to ring to the phone. Anything not in the device database go directly to the answering machine. So very few people get to call direct keeping her from answering the phone. It has worked great for me.


almost 5 years ago

Have a phone where people can call and you can use a speaker phone. It helps and allows people to enjoy hearing peoples voices. Also the special phones with no numbers are greatk like Jitterbug. All they have to do is push one button, ask a live person for a name, and that operator calls it from a list you have given. If they can still answer a phone, when the phone rings, they just open it and talk.


almost 5 years ago

My 80 yr old mother has a problem with the modern cordless phones. She doesn't know how to turn the phone on or off. I found an old type of phone with the cord.One that works when you take it off the cradle and turns off when put it back in the cradle. Remember those? LOL It also comes with a couple of cordless that can be put in my bedroom and office. She's not afraid to answer the phone any more, thank gawd. Cause I like checking on her when I have to be gone.


almost 5 years ago

Thanks Kathy -- your lighter-side insights are one reason you've been in our Caring Currents blogroll for a long time now!


almost 5 years ago

My 83-year-old mother with dementia lives with me, and I have recently had to have directory assistance blocked on my phone (which unfortunately also required blocking the ability to make long distance calls). My mother would call directory assistance over and over to get my work number, which is posted right by the phone. Finally one month I received my phone bill and had over $30 of charges to directory assistance. I hated to have to change my phone service, but just couldn't afford to take the chance that she would continue.


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