How can I help my dad, who has Alzheimer's, communicate?

A fellow caregiver asked...
My dad, who's just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, regularly struggles to find the right words. There are long silences as if he's just looking for a word but can't find it. What can I do to help him?

Expert Answer

A social worker and geriatric consultant who specializes in dementia care, Joyce Simard is based in Land O' Lakes, Florida, and in Prague. She is a well-known speaker and has written two books, one focusing on end-of-life care and the other, entitled The Magic Tape Recorder, explaining aging, memory loss, and how children can be helpers to their elders.

If your dad has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, he may feel stressed when he can't find the words he's looking for. Word-finding difficulties are one of the early symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.

Just try to help in an easygoing way. Say to him: "Let's see if we can work together and figure out what you're trying to say." Talk in a calm, gentle voice. Reassure him: "I think you're just anxious. Even when I'm anxious, I can't think of the right word." Or make light of it: "It's probably on the tip of your tongue. You'll remember later."

If you think you have a gist of what he's trying to say, ask questions that might trigger what he's getting at. Even if he's using the wrong word, it can give you a clue to what he's trying to say. Sometimes people misname things. You could say, "Do you mean…" and supply the right word. But watch for his reaction—sometimes too many prompts leave a person feeling frustrated.

If you have no idea what he's talking about, try to change the subject or redirect his attention to reduce his frustration. If it seems important, you can return to the subject later and try again.