This browser does not support the video element.

This browser does not support the video element.

What should you not say to someone with Alzheimer's?

There are seven sayings to avoid when talking to someone with Alzheimer’s, including: (1) pointing out wrongdoing, (2) past bereavement of a beloved one, (3) long and complex sentences, (4) do you recognize this person, (5) I’ve told you already, (6) patronizing words, and (7) other upsetting topics.

Last Wednesday I visited my grandparents in the nursing home. Both of them are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. However, as always I greeted them by their names and complemented their beautiful flowers in a vase.

Afterward, I sat down at a round table next to the spacious windows.

I took out a newspaper and handed it to my grandpa, who still loves to read the headlines.

After he quoted the first two headlines, I asked him an open question:

“So how was it back then, grandpa?”

He replied: “Oh, very different.”

Now that I had him talk to me, I continued:

“Can you tell me something from your school years?”

I love using this open question because something always pops to mind.

Whether the best friendship or something about the teachers, something will be answered.

Thus, I preach this reminiscence approach in my article “How to talk to someone with Alzheimer’s”, too.

However, my choice of words was not always the best.

In this post, I created a list of sayings and questions to avoid during your next visit.

Table of Content
Don’t point out wrongdoing
Don’t remember them of death
Don’t use long and complex phrases
”Don’t ask “Do you recognize me?”
Never say “I’ve told you already!”
Don’t use patronizing words
Don’t talk about upsetting topics
List of Resources
About the Author

Don’t point out wrongdoing

Someone with Alzheimer’s is prone to make mistakes. Pointing them out is not helpful. The patient is making the mistake because of the disease.

Keep in mind, there is nothing positive gained.

Pointing out the error will only make them feel embarrassed. And even worse, it might make them feel like a burden.

Here is a nice workaround: The goal is to make the individual suffering from Alzheimer’s feel safe, understood, and valued.

This is achievable by using phrases like: “I am really happy that I can be here with you. May I help you with … (e.g. opening the jar)?”

Don’t remember them of death

Your beloved person might forget that their spouse or relative already passed. This can happen from time to time. It seems like it is your task to ensure to make them remember.

However, making your beloved one grieve again is not a good choice.

Of course, to lie to them does not seem ethical. But, you might not even need to.

Sometimes they just want to complain about the other person not being present.

In such a scenario, there are ways to play along.

Here is a good workaround:  “Oh, yes, you are right!”, or “I hear you.” can be used repetitively. Depending on the person, they stop after the third time.

However, swiftly changing the topic can be another strategy, too.

A phrase that could be used is: “Did you already hear? There will be a rainstorm next week!”

Don’t use long and complex phrases

While it could be tempting to talk with your beloved person like you would with a friend, you rather don’t. Depending on the stage, the disease makes paying attention extremely difficult.

Using long and complex phrases will lead to confusion.

Try the following: Use easy and short sentences.

Instead of saying: “They said on the news that next week there will be snow in the city, so I might not make it on time to visit you.”

Simply say: “It will snow next week. Maybe I will not make it on time.

”Don’t ask “Do you recognize me?”

I know firsthand the feeling when a beloved one does not know who you are.

One day we visited my 94 years-old grand-grandmother. She was sitting in a big chair and covered with a blanket. Next to her, some cookies were served on a silver plate.

She was recognizing everybody. My parents, my sister, even my uncle she called by name.

Everybody except me. The one person, who she had no name for.

I asked her: “Don’t you recognize me?”

My question was not met with an answer. Just with two confused eyes.

So what could I have done differently?

Well, I could have tried this: A warm hello could have helped. The way to greet somebody with Alzheimer’s or some other type of dementia should always be friendly.

Never say “I’ve told you already!”

It is very tempting to say “I‘ve told you already!” when being asked the same question the 10th time. For the majority, it might even be frustrating. However, repetition is normal for a person with the condition.

There is no positive outcome to expect when using the phrase.

Contrary, your beloved person will either become aggressive or feel discomfort.

Do this instead: Just smile and repeat the same answer for the 11th time. Remember, it is the disease that is the problem, not your beloved person.

In case you become easily frustrated do this: Breath out. Strike the first and second sentence that comes to mind.

Then, :) and repeat the same answer for the 12th time.

Don’t use patronizing words

“Honey, Dear, Cutie, Granni” cute little sayings that are on the blacklist from now on. You probably wonder why. It is straightforward.

Patronizing words diminishes someone’s self-worth.

It makes one feel small and weak.

What to do instead? It is very simple. Use their first name. It might bring you discomfort to call your mother by her first name. However, it keeps their dignity intact.

As you already know, the aim is to create an atmosphere of safety and comfort.

Not using patronizing words is key.

Don’t talk about upsetting topics

Every topic that could lead to a heated discussion should be avoided. Everything that provokes an argument. You know your beloved ones best. Just remember the countless arguments you had with them.

All those topics are now blacklisted. Don’t feel like you have to win an argument.

If you convince someone with Alzheimer’s, it won't be remembered for long.

What can you do differently? Allow yourself to enjoy the moments you have with your beloved one. A good cup of tea and a nice talk about something pleasant. I think there is nothing more one can ask for.

There is a recent article I published called “How to talk to someone with Alzheimer’s”. It describes two approaches that help you reduce tension.

So there you go. A new set of rules means a new set of opportunities.

I hope this article was helpful and enriches your upcoming visits.

List of Resources

Patric Pförtner

B. Sc. Psychology

Hi, my name is Patric Pfoertner and I graduated 2020 from the NBU. Currently, I work and study in Germany. My specialisations are Cognitive Psychology paired with a good slack of Clinical Psychology. Just this year I started publishing my research in the CBB Journal. Feel free to read about it at ResearchGate. Otherwise, click the other button to read my full CV.

About Author ResearchGate

P.S.: I am available for psychological consultation, too.