What Not to Do to People With Alzheimer's Disease

Do you know someone who has Alzheimer's disease? If you don't, it might be only a matter of time before you do.

The Alzheimer's Association estimates that approximately 5.8 million Americans have Alzheimer's or another kind of dementia. Sooner or later, you are likely to cross paths with someone who has dementia.

Man sits outside with his wife holding him
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Here are our top 10 "don'ts" when it comes to interacting with someone who has Alzheimer's disease:

Don't Ignore Them

Sometimes we tend to look the other way when faced with something uncomfortable. If you're not sure how to interact with someone who has memory loss, the first rule is to actually interact with them and not ignore them.

Their memory might not work as well as yours, but they are human beings who deserve our attention and respect. Greet them and offer a handshake or a pat on the back.

Don't Talk to Them Like They're a Young Child or a Baby

Imagine if someone came up to you and spoke in a sing-song voice, putting their face close to yours. What would your reaction be? Would it be to pull back from that person and withdraw, laugh at them, or simply not respond?

This type of interaction is called "elderspeak," and it has got to go. A person with Alzheimer's is an adult, not a child. They will appreciate being treated as such.

Don't Use Terms of Endearment Instead of Names

Terms of endearment should generally be reserved for close family members and friends. (There is the occasional individual who can use terms of endearment genuinely and convey caring and respect by doing so, but on the whole, this should be avoided.)

If you're a health professional and you walk around calling others "sweetheart," "honey," and "dear," you're often missing an opportunity. Use the person's name. It's one of the more precious things to people, and for people with Alzheimer's, it conveys that they are important enough to be called specifically by their name.

Don't Assume They're Confused All the Time

Even though someone has Alzheimer's or another form of dementia, they may still have frequent times of clarity.

For instance, someone with early-stage Alzheimer's may tell you that a friend had called and said they would be stopping by at a certain time. You might doubt if they really had the information correct, but sure enough, later that day, you will see that their friend was there to visit.

Remember not to discount everything said by a person with dementia.

Don't Quiz Them

"Remember me? What's my name? Come on, you know it. When's the last time I was here? Just think a little harder. What'd you eat for lunch? How old are you, Dad? What day is it?" Please don't do this. It increases anxiety and has no benefit.

Don't Ask Other People Questions About Them While They're Right There

The opposite of quizzing someone is this scenario: "Hi, Fred. So, Sue, how's Fred been doing? How's his memory? Is he having any pain? Do you think he's sad? What does he want for lunch today?"

Consider this a gentle reminder to be intentional about directly asking the person with Alzheimer's a few questions. If they are completely unable to answer, you can then check with a family member in a respectful way.

Don't Focus on What They Aren't Able to Do Anymore

Rather than emphasize someone's lost job, disorganization, or poor memory, direct attention instead to their ability to complete the puzzle they've been working on, a nice hairdo, or how well they walk.

Grieving what's lost is understandable and important, but focusing on the skills of the person goes a long way toward encouraging them and can change both of your perspectives.

Don't Assume They're Choosing to Be Difficult

This is a common reaction often seen in someone who is very close to the person with Alzheimer's. Sometimes, subconsciously, it may be easier to believe that your loved one is intentionally doing things to bother or hurt you than to accept that they are unable to control their actions and that their memory really is poor.

What results from this, though, are feelings of intense frustration, hurt, and impatience, none of which help either of you. You will both win if you give the person the benefit of the doubt and assume (usually correctly) that their choices are the result of dementia.

Don’t Stop Visiting Just Because You Think They Won’t Remember

Do you sometimes feel like it's not worth it to spend time visiting your loved one? Think again. Even if they aren't able to remember that you visited, research shows that the feelings you create remain far longer than the duration of your visit.

Those feelings can shape the rest of their day by influencing how they respond to others, how they feel, even how they eat. Be encouraged that your visit has more lasting power than you think. Remember that there are times when you will be enriched by your time together as well.

Don’t Forget How You Would Like to Be Treated

If you're not sure how to treat someone with Alzheimer's disease or what to say, make this your default approach: "How would I like to be treated?" This approach serves well as a guide for how to treat others with the grace, love, and respect that they deserve, no matter what their deficits or abilities.

2 Sources
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  1. Alzheimer's Association. Alzheimer's facts and figures.

  2. Grimme TM, Buchanan J, Afflerbach S. Understanding elderspeak from the perspective of certified nursing assistants. J Gerontol Nurs. 2015;41(11):42-9. doi:10.3928/00989134-20151015-05

By Esther Heerema, MSW
Esther Heerema, MSW, shares practical tips gained from working with hundreds of people whose lives are touched by Alzheimer's disease and other kinds of dementia.