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Alzheimer’s disease and communication

Dr. Ruth Westheimer explains the “language of Alzheimer’s”

Dr. Ruth Westheimer, PhD's picture
Dr. Ruth Kandel
Dr. Ruth Kandel

In 2011, Dr. Ruth Westheimer came to NewBridge on the Charles for Hebrew SeniorLife’s College of Retirement Living.  During her visit, she met with Hebrew SeniorLife Dementia Research, Medical and Care Team and interviewed them for the book she was then writing “Dr. Ruth’s Guide for the Alzheimer’s Caregiver: How to Care for Your Loved One without Getting Overwhelmed…and Without Doing it All Yourself.”  Dr. Ruth recognized the HSL team with a special thank you in the Acknowledgements section of the book. 

Two of those professionals who contributed to Dr. Ruth’s book were Tara Fleming- Caruso, psychotherapist and Marketing Manager for the Assisted Living Community at NewBridge, and Dr. Ruth Kandel, MD, Geriatrician for Hebrew SeniorLife.  What follows is an interview between Tara, Dr. Kandel and Dr. Ruth regarding Dr. Ruth’s book and what Tara and Dr. Kandel believe to be some of the most pertinent information contained therein. 

The interview questions and answers will comprise a series of posts on our blog over the next two weeks.

If you enjoyed this content, we encourage you to let us know by sharing your own story in the blog comments below, by filling out our “Tell Us Your Story” form, or by leaving a comment on our Facebook page

Dr. Ruth Kandel:  How we communicate with people with dementia, both verbally and non-verbally is very important.  I shared with you my experiences in “learning the language of Alzheimer’s.”  Can you talk a bit about what this means for the caregiver?

Dr. Ruth: I don't have the broad experience that you have but here's what I have to offer from my experience as a behavioral therapist: If you've been communicating with someone for a lifetime in a certain way and you see it's not working, don't just give up. Try every method you can to get through. We all get into ruts and it can be hard to get out of them – not that talking should be considered a rut, it's how we communicate. Remember the story of Helen Keller. She couldn't see or hear but eventually she was taught how to communicate. Hopefully with a little practice you can find ways to get through, though of course it will be on a limited basis.

Dr. Ruth Kandel:   I’ve summarized a few tips on how to best communicate with someone who has Alzheimer’s from the complete list of “Learning the Language of Alzheimer’s” contained in “Dr. Ruth’s Guide for the Alzheimer’s Caregiver”. 

1.     Pay careful attention to your body language.  People with Alzheimer’s, especially in the latter stages, have problems understanding words.  Observe what their body language is telling you.  Smiling sets the tone for the conversation and is uplifting.

2.     Make certain that you have your loved one’s attention.  Look her in the eye and say who you are.  Use gentle touch to make sure she is focused on you.

3.     Use simple phrases.  Repeat what you have to say if you don’t get a reaction.  Use specific names and terms because they are easier to understand.

4.     Phrase questions so she can give you a yes or no answer.  Try not to offer choices. 

5.     Learn to listen with your eyes and observe what her body language is telling you.

6.     Try to end every conversation on a positive note.  If the overall feeling of the conversation was positive, it will have a more lasting effect. 

7.     When you’re talking with her, keep other distractions to a minimum.

8.     Don’t try to initiate conversation when you’re short of time, because your loved one may need to get her thoughts together. 

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Renowned Psychosexual Therapist

Dr. Ruth Westheimer is a renowned psychosexual therapist whose straightforward approach to sex and relationship advice has made her an American icon for decades. In addition to having appeared in every form of media, she is the author of 36 books including her latest “Dr. Ruth’s Guide for the Alzheimer’s Caregiver” 

To learn more about Dr. Ruth, visit her website www.drruth.com

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