When Denise Vann began talking about how to communicate with people who have Alzheimer’s disease, she demonstrated the importance of facial expressions and body language to her audience at Cherry Village Benevolence.
“What if I had been standing here with my arms crossed and not smiling when you arrived?” asked Vann, outreach specialist for the Alzheimer’s Association Central and Western Kansas Chapter. “You could easily think I didn’t want to be here. Those with Alzheimer’s can read these signals too.”
Vann recently presented four educational sessions in Great Bend, covering communications, behaviors and some basics of the disease. Cherry Village, a long-term-care residence at 1401 Cherry Lane, sponsored the sessions for caregivers and the public.
During her presentations, Vann discussed what to expect and how to adapt during the early, middle and late stages of Alzheimer’s.
“As the disease progresses from one stage to the next, those with Alzheimer’s will gradually decline,” she noted. “Eventually, they will have more difficulty expressing thoughts and emotions, which leads to frustration. Anticipating these changes can help everyone communicate more effectively.
“It is important to join their reality and accept what you cannot change,” Vann added. “And if you feel like frustration might get the better of you, take a short break. We are only human.”
In the early stage of Alzheimer’s, a person can still converse with others and engage in activities. However, they may repeat stories, feel overwhelmed by excessive stimulation or have difficulty finding the right word.
Vann’s advice includes: don’t assume anything because the disease affects each person differently; don’t exclude the person from conversations; speak clearly and directly; take time to listen; allow time for a response; and don’t pull away from the person.
The middle stage can last for many years but the person will have more difficulty communicating and require more direct care.
Suggestions for this stage include: maintain eye contact; avoid criticizing, arguing or correcting; don’t hover over or stand behind them; ask ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions one at a time; and gently demonstrate tasks such as sitting or walking.
The late stage of Alzheimer’s may last for several weeks or several years. As the disease progresses, the person may rely more on facial expressions and tone of voice. Full-time care is usually necessary.
Advice includes: continue to treat people with dignity and respect; avoid talking down to them; encourage non-verbal communication such as pointing or gesturing; look for the emotion behind the words; and use all five senses to communicate.
“It is okay if you don’t know what to do or say,” Vann commented. “Just you being there is most important.”
Anyone interested in learning more is encouraged to visit www.alz.org/care.
To see videos of common scenarios, click on Alzheimer’s Navigator. “In addition, the Community Resource Finder suggests local resources and ALZConnected is a support group that connects you with other caregivers who can relate to your situation,” Vann said. “These are just a few highlights of our website.”
The Alzheimer’s Association helpline is available 24/7. The number is 1-800-272-3900.