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When a person has Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia, the language centers of the brain are often damaged. This, combined with profound forgetfulness, often makes it hard for persons with dementia to understand us, and for us to understand them.

A few general tips:

  • Make good eye contact, slow down, and speak up.
  • Recognize that it is almost never a good idea to argue or correct the person.
  • Provide some cues and clues to keep the conversation going.
  • Share your smiles and positive emotion; the person with dementia responds, heart to heart, to a “friendly face.”

At Christian Horizons and its Pathway Memory Support program, we have developed an innovative tool called a “Conversation Starter Card.” The card is written out for every resident or in-home client, providing our caregivers with some starting points to bring up favorite subjects that may still be quite available in longer-term memory.

For example, a resident with dementia may be quite forgetful and have some language difficulties but when we ask, “Tell me about growing up on that wheat farm in Walla Walla, Washington,” the resident will light up, smile, and tell you stories from childhood.

Persons with dementia often remember key accomplishments or successes, so a conversation card might suggest that we say, “You won the Nurse of the Year for the State of Illinois twice! That is an amazing achievement. Tell me more about that.” This could lead to an hour-long conversation about nursing and working in this healing profession (after all, “once a nurse, always a nurse!”)

If you are caring for someone at home, create your own Conversation Starter card that can be used by any visiting professionals or if your family member needs to go to a medical appointment (or faces a hospitalization). This will facilitate communication and connection.