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Tips to Easier Communication with a Spouse with Alzheimer's

by Matt Kudish, Alzheimer's & Dementia Expert
January 18, 2013

Question: My 65 year old wife who suffers from Alzheimer’s always rebels when I try to help her dress. I feel it would help her feel better if she maintains her appearance and it’s frustrating that she is so difficult about it. What can I do to make this process easier?

Answer: Family caregivers often think they know what is best for the person with dementia.  Unfortunately, this approach often results in more challenges in communication.  It’s important that you remember that behavior is communication.  When people with dementia act in certain ways, they are attempting to communicate with us.  The old ways of communicating are no longer available and so behaviors often become a new way of communication. Your wife is trying to tell you something when she “rebels” and it sounds like she is trying to tell you that she wants you to stop.  What I would suggest is that you step into your wife’s world as opposed to trying to drag her into yours. Remember that the disease from which she is suffering does not allow her to use reason and logic as she used to. And things like maintaining her appearance each day becomes less important to her, despite still being important to you. If we want to improve our interactions with people with dementia, the most important—and often hardest—first step is letting go of some of these types of things. Putting aside what we, the caregiver, want for the person and letting the person inform how things move along, while of course always ensuring dignity and safety. A good tool for caregivers is the question “Who is it for?”  Who is it for that your wife looks a certain way each day? If the answer is you, that’s valuable information. If she enjoyed maintaining her appearance now, she would probably not fight you so much.  While you’re clearly coming from a good place, I think it’s most important that you listen more deeply to what her behavior is telling you. Rather than see her resistance as her rebelling, think about what might be underlying the behavior. This shift in perspective can be quite difficult for family caregivers to make, and the Alzheimer’s Association, NYC Chapter is here to help, 24/7/365 through our Helpline which can be reached at 800-272-3900.

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Matt Kudish, LMSW, is Vice President, Director of Education, Outreach and Caregiver Services at the Alzheimer’s Association, New York City Chapter. In this role, Matt oversees the Chapter’s 24-hour Helpline and Care Consultation programs, as well as comprehensive education and training initiatives throughout the five boroughs.

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