Elkhorn, NE: Sharing Lessons in Communicating with Alzheimer’s Patients

Erin and Cameo

Photo by Tracy Buffington, Fremont Tribune
Erin Bonitto, left, and Cameo Rogers show an example of positive communication between a caregiver and an Alzheimer’s disease patient during a seminar at St. Patrick’s Church.


Erin Bonitto took a deep breath, put a smile on her face and calmly introduced herself to her “mother.”

“Good morning. Hi, mom. It’s me, Erin, the most beautiful of your three daughters.”

Then she waited for a response.

In this case, her “mother,” portrayed by Cameo Rogers of Vetter Health Services in Elkhorn, had a response and recognized her daughter.

But that isn’t always the case with those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Bonitto knows from the experience she has gained over the years as the founder and lead coach of Gemini Consulting that communicating with those who have Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia isn’t easy. It can often be frustrating, especially for those who provide care.

“What we’re doing in a lot of cases to work as effectively as we can with a person who has Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, we have to have this trusting bond,” she told the nearly 100 people who gathered Thursday at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. “If we scold, we break that trusting bond, we break that thing that allows us to be effective in managing that situation. We want to be sure we don’t do that.”

During a 90­minute presentation sponsored by the Fremont Area Alzheimer’s Committee, Bonitto shared tips to improve communication skills with those suffering from dementia. One key, she said, is to move away from quizzing the loved one, expecting that person to be re­oriented into the present. Instead, finding ways to move into that person’s reality may open lines of communication.

Bonitto urges caregivers to step into the patient’s reality, to not argue but instead validate that person’s experiences and feelings. Using short, simple statements and familiar, concrete words are helpful. “If they cannot understand all the words we are saying, if they cannot understand our
message, we have to adjust how we speak to make it easier for the person,” she said. “They can’t try harder to understand.”

It’s a challenge, she said.

But she’s also seen how frustrated family members have been able to step back, take a different approach and have successful, enjoyable visits for those who have Alzheimer’s disease.  One way that can help successful visits, is to treat each one as if it’s the first time meeting the person – or as if it’s been a very long time since you’ve seen the visit.

“We’ll just offer our name. … If it clicks in, that’s great. If it doesn’t, then just continue on as a nice friend,” she said. “Just continue on and don’t worry too much about whether the person specifically remembers you from the past. Just concern yourself with, are you and the person having a pleasant time at this moment, today.”  While verbal communication can sometimes be difficult, Bonitto reminded those in  attendance that there are memories Alzheimer’s patients carry with them as the disease progresses.

Patients usually have procedural memories such as folding, sorting, sanding and painting for a long time. It’s the same with deeply­stored long­term memories, automatic responses such as songs, hymns, prayers and poems and social rituals.  These are ways that can help connect caregivers with Alzheimer’s patients, making for a pleasant visit.

Bonitto also had advice for the caregivers: Get some rest.  “Caregiving and appropriate dementia communication requires tremendous energy. It requires concentration. It requires deliberateness. It requires patience,” she said. “This is a stage in your life because of the caregiving demands that you probably do not have tremendous energy, concentration or patience. Be kind to yourself.”

Additional information about Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia can be found online at www.alz.org.

Thursday’s presentation was part of a day­long effort. During the morning and afternoon, Bonitto worked nearly 190 with professional caregivers.

The presentation was made possible through funds raised at the annual Memory Walk. The local committee sets aside 60 percent of the money raised for research into Alzheimer’s and
the other 40 percent for educational opportunities.

This year’s Memory Walk will be Oct. 3 at Midland University.

Article reprinted from the Fremont Tribune

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