How to Maximize Your Relationship With Your Loved One Who Has Alzheimer’s

“Stop yelling at me!”

You close your eyes. Once, not so long ago, but now far, far away, you had a loving, close, sharing relationship with the person in front of you.

And now… now, every time your tone gets a little emphatic she accuses you of yelling at her. She has sudden, angry outbursts – often directed at you. She can’t remember what you said a week, a day or five minutes ago.

How can you carry on a conversation? Moreover, how can you maintain your relationship?

Understanding your new relationship

Before we go into practical tips and strategies, we have to lay out the reality. It’s a reality that is disappointing – but simultaneously liberating – and it will inevitably take some time to come to terms with the new reality.

Your relationship WON’T be the same as it always was – but it can still be beautiful and fulfilling.

If you hang on to your picture of how your loved one used to be, and how your relationship used to be, you’ll be perpetually frustrated and disappointed. Your loved one is travelling a new road now. As the situation changes, you can only traverse it safely and successfully together if you change your expectations.

When Joy Johnston shares her experiences of her father’s Alzheimer’s disease, she picks this area as the one thing she would have changed: She “would have spent more time with him and not been put off by his behavior. ‘I would have joined him more on his journey where he was at,’ she says. ‘It’s important to put aside who they were before and learn to love the person that they are now.’”

“Don’t try to change your loved one back into the person they once were. Grieve the loss, then love them as they are right now,” advises Alissa Sauer in her 20 Things to Remember if You Love Someone With Dementia.

Don’t get us wrong.

This is not easy.

You will need time to mourn the loss of what used to be, and invest the time to gain strength to accept and develop what is now.

These 20 poignant and thought-provoking questions may help to reframe your relationship, and help you find the beauty in the different kind of connection you can now begin to build.

Building your new relationship

Your old relationship may have been heavily based on conversations, verbal intimacy and sharing. When a loved one has Alzheimer’s, however, verbal interaction can generally no longer serve as the basis of connection.

While it may take time, as you let go of the verbal connection as the primary means of relating, you can find and explore other means of connection:

  • Touch
  • Experiences: trips to museums, parks or the zoo
  • Art: pictures can evoke memories and emotions, as in these beautiful picture books for adults with Alzheimer’s
  • Music: familiar music from when they were younger, or even music in general can have a powerful impact on adults with dementia. Listening to music together or singing together can be a connective experience
  • Reading: especially familiar passages from when they were younger

Whatever method you choose to try, realize and begin to embrace that your primary communication will now be emotional: the language of the heart, showing them they are loved.

Giving your relationship the best chance

As you come to accept and appreciate the nature of your new relationship, you’ll become aware that in order to make the most of it, you may need to change old styles of communication and interaction. Your loved one’s perceptions have changed, and may continue to change. The more sensitive and accommodating you can be, the less obstacles you’ll hit on your way to building and maintaining your relationship.

Here are recommended behavioral and verbal changes that can make a big difference:

Behavioral changes

  • Make eye contact and call your loved one by name.
  • Be aware of your tone – try to speak warmly, calmly and matter-of-factly.
  • Don’t talk to your loved one using “baby talk” or a “baby voice.”
  • Be aware of how loud your voice is – try to speak more softly.
  • Hold your loved one’s hand while you talk.
  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Do not argue, especially over a forgotten memory; be willing to let things go.
  • Be patient with angry outbursts. It’s the illness – and the frustration of feeling that life as they knew it is slipping away from them.

Verbal changes

  • Offer simple, step-by-step instructions.
  • Repeat instructions and allow more time for a response.
  • Instead of open-ended questions, ask questions that require a yes or no answer.
  • Limit the number of choices.
  • Use different words if he or she doesn’t understand the first time.
  • Avoid saying, “Don’t you remember?” or “I told you.”

It will take a while until these changes become second nature. Be patient with yourself.

And with your loved one.

New horizons

Letting go of the old, familiar face of your relationship and walking a new path can be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done. For those who try it, however, the experience can open new vistas not only in the development of your relationship with your loved one, but also in your relationship with yourself.

We won’t say it’s not an end. It is.

But it is also a beginning.