“Most days Mom just sat in her armchair in front of the TV with a glazed look in her eyes. I tried to perk her up by talking about what was on the news or what I was cooking for dinner, but she didn’t seem interested. With her Alzheimer’s, I’m not even sure she understood what I was saying.”

Talking with a senior woman.

One day, a commercial came on for engagement rings, and I casually asked her, “Mom, do you remember when Dad proposed to you?” Suddenly her eyes lit up, as if I had unlocked a long-forgotten memory that brought her great joy. She proceeded to tell me the proposal story in great detail, which was more than I had heard her talk in weeks. I discovered Mom retained many vivid recollections of her past, and she seemed delighted to tell me her stories. All I had to do was ask a good question.

Asking questions can spark a meaningful conversation full of special memories. Someone living with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias will particularly appreciate the opportunity to pass on personal history and wisdom before it’s too late.

When you begin a conversation, prompt the person living with dementia to elaborate by asking open-ended questions and then listen patiently. Here are some questions you might ask:

  • What chores did you have to do when you were growing up?
  • When you were a teenager, what did you and your friends do for fun?
  • What are some of the most valuable things you learned from your parents?
  • What did your grandparents and great grandparents do for a living?
  • When you were growing up, what did you dream you would do with your life?
  • What accomplishments in your life are you most proud of?
  • What are some of the things you are most grateful for?
  • What was the happiest moment of your life?
  • How would you like to be remembered?

You can use these questions as conversation starters at mealtimes, while completing daily activities together, or at a family gathering. Work up to the deeper questions like “How would you like to be remembered?” and follow up with related questions to keep the conversation going. If your family member living with dementia gets confused, frustrated or upset by your questions, change the subject. You can always rephrase the question and try asking it again at another time.

You also want to give your loved one plenty of time to think about an answer to your question. If they don’t respond right away, it could be that they are giving thought to their response. Try pausing for 8-10 seconds after you ask the question. It may seem long to you, but it may be the time your loved one needs to process your question, formulate a response, and speak their thoughts out loud.

By asking good questions, you’re inviting your family member living with dementia to share important life experiences that you can continue to remember and cherish even when that person no longer can. You’ll not only enrich your loved one’s life during the moments those memories are shared, but you’ll be able to preserve the memories until it’s time to pass them along to the next generation.

You can find additional memory-evoking question ideas at StoryCorps.org and great conversation starters for mealtimes at Caregiverstress.com.

32 thoughts on “Tips for Talking to Someone Living with Alzheimer’s

  • Jackie

    I am a CHHA and my specialty is to work with patients with AZ & Dementia
    I am always seeking knowledge on various ways to work with individuals
    Thank you for contributing to my knowledge

  • Roz Darby

    Very good tips when dealing with Alzheimer’s patients.

  • Darlene

    Yes listening is key when one wants to tell his/ her story. Sometimes a response is not needed. He/she only want someone to know they are here. I believe the core of the individual is still within the person. Who they were before illness. We not know why some seem to loose more of what was than another. For some of the people I support know their abilities are not as they were. And for other’s. Seems a constant battle of. I believe the people I support have their story; have a story whether is their story or their story the way they recall.For I truly enjoy doing what I do. Supporting the people I support for it is ” My Purpose” they not choose their illness. Their illness choose them.

  • Sharon kemp

    Great ideas and they work.

    • Zeeh

      Sadly with my mother in law these questions don’t recall any memory:( and she gets upset if we ask her .. especially because she can’t remember. I need ideas to engage her but whatever we try she says she’s tired and doesn’t do them.

  • Mark Murphy

    I really appreciate your tip to try and begin your conversation with a good question to remind your loved one of their life. My grandmother has had Alzheimer’s disease for a couple of years, and I want to try and connect with her more often. I will be sure to begin all of my conversations with good questions about her life!

  • Terry C Van Winkle

    As someone with ALZ,I can say that your sugestions are great.
    Now if you could just implant into the mind of my caregiver, we would have a winner.

    • Deidre Love Sullens

      You wrote on this page/ thread and searched something of meaning to help your caregiver with yourself. I am moved by your desire of meaning and connection – I hope if you are still out there somewhere and able… that you would answer each question like it was asked of you by your loved one… just share it with us here, Please? Somewhere in the vast universe of the internet your message will be received and your memory forever prolonged. Everything is temporary, even words. But the changes made for those who hear your words, the lesson learned, the impression imprinted – those are evergreen.

  • Erin

    I would also be interested to see an article about how not to talk with someone who has a memory problem. For example, when I don’t recall something, my husband will berate me by insisting I should remember because he told me… very hurtful.

    • Jessica K

      It sounds like your husband doesn’t understand what you are going through.

      Have you talked to your doctor about your memory loss? If not, definitely do!

      If so, maybe you can take your husband with you to your next doctor’s appointment. It sounds like he does not believe you actually have memory loss, but are just being difficult and that is why he is berating you.
      Or he is upset about losing you and is dealing with it through anger instead of with compassion.

  • Linda Mckay

    I think I may be going through some type of ? Don’t knock help me to understand

  • Jan

    How do I respond when she asks
    Do I have a credit card
    Do you still have your business
    Do you have your RV still do I have a drivers license

    The answer is all no
    If I answer no
    She will be upset and ask why and worry

  • Rachel Frampton

    My mother is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and it’s been eating up my conscience because I don’t know the proper way of communicating with her. I guess it’s not a bad idea to try your suggestion of coming up with open-minded questions such as, how does she like to be remembered by us. Apart from communication, I’m also having some difficulties in devoting my time to her due to my busy schedule. That’s why I’ve been thinking of living her under the hands of a memory care service, so I’ll be assured that she will be well taken care of.

  • Maria

    What questions does your parents with Alzheimer’s ask frequently?

  • Milford

    excellent points altogether, you simply won a new reader. What may you suggest
    about your submit that you just made some days ago?
    Any sure?

  • merle luber friedenberg

    My mom had a stroke that has effected her mental status. I no longer no what to tell her. I always tell her that I will not lie to her. She now insists that my dad keeps leaving her. He won’t tell her where he has been and won’t take his phone so that she can call him. It seems that the man in the house is her father. This is a problem especially when they go to bed. She also thinks that there is her daughter who is 4-5 that she left behind when they moved and she is very worried about her.
    My sister and I have tried many strategies. Explaining that my father has not left and it is the stroke that makes her think he left. Her father is no longer living. The little girl is all grown up and it is me and I am safe. Now there are two of me. One is the invisible me and the other is the 63 year old me living safely. We mostly assure her that everyone is safe and is where they belong. Now she wants my sister, who lives minutes away to come and get her so that she can get away from the intolerable situation she is going through. As soon as she can get on an airplane she is going to come and live with me. She calls my sister and me everyday incredibly upset. We both feel that she needs to be in her own home because she would be even more confused if she woke up in a strange environment. I have not been able to visit my parents, of course, as I won’t fly at this time. I also think that because my parents are 88 it would be dangerous for me to fly and possibly bring covid into their environment. My father is very hard of hearing and he gets frustrated normally. Sometimes he is unaware when she is on the phone and sometimes he tells her she cannot call us and bother us. He is very protective of my sister and myself, but he knows he needs some kind of help so it varies. When my mom first had the stroke, she was completely mobile. It did not effect her motor or speech skills. In fact she really did not show any change in mental status right away. However, she slipped and feel and broke ribs and her radius. We got some care for her for only two mornings a week to give my Dad a break. Though they both fought it. My dad insisted he could take care of her. When covid broke out we let the woman go. In reality both my parents were relieved to get rid of her.

    • Tracie

      Merle go visit your parents. Their medical situation wont improve & who knows how long the covid will last. Theses are situations that you must prioritize & it doesn’t seem like a safe environment for 2 people with their health issues.

  • Arthur Johnson

    My wife is 86, has had vascular dementia for five years. We are both in same care home. Nurse insists on ignoring me @nd asking her questions like “how much lactolose do you need today? Any advice?

  • Alice Carroll

    Thanks for the tip that using open-ended questions would make someone suffering from memory loss be more comfortable in talking. My family is considering to hire senior memory care community services for my grandmother since her Alzheimer’s is becoming too worrisome for our own comfort. If we want memory care to positively affect her, I think we should also start learning how to properly talk to someone with Alzheimer’s.

  • Zoe Campos

    Thanks for giving me the idea to use open-ended questions whenever I’m talking with someone who has Alzheimer’s. We visit my grandfather every weekend and this tip will be useful whenever I’m having a hard time keeping up a conversation with him. It might also be a good idea to check in-home care options that can keep him safe when we’re not around.

  • Karleen K Greaver

    Thank you for the tips on what to say and what not to say to my husband with Alzheimer’s desease. I need to have more patience with him. I love him and it’s hard for me to understand all the changes in him. Is their a hand book I could buy to remind me what to do & say?

  • Jay N Myers

    Great Tips, everyone should follow this, My grandmother is almost 82, and she has Alzheimer’s. I will follow these guidelines and show patience while talking to them.

  • Jack Weaver

    I love your blog! I learn and earn knowledge by reading your article. What truly startles me is Alzheimer’s or untimely infirmity, losing that capacity to peruse and appreciate and to compose. Also, you do it, and a few days perhaps aren’t exactly great, and afterward a few days, you truly get a wave, and it’s comparable to it ever was.

  • Dana Yan, DO

    Ideas shared through your blogs are so inspiring. It is right that listening is one of the biggest factors while taking care of an Alzheimer patient in addition to love and affection. Keep writing on such good topics!

  • Jon William Pierson

    It was a moving experience to walk my Mother through the decisions to give up her car and choose her facility to move to. It was not easy but it was simple. Letting her lead while we went on a meta physical dance was key to our success. Three simple thoughts were our guide lines;
    1. To be SAFE.
    2. To be FREE to make her own decisions (often with gentle assistance).
    3. To Know that she was LOVED!
    Alzheimer’s gave me a child, that did not need to be fixed, she simply just needed my LOVE!

  • Veronica

    Forgetting can be caused by a thyroid problem,too.No one ever mentions this.
    Pictures can stimulate past memories in people with dementia or simply baking cookies they had in the past and asking if the recipe is good.

  • Rita Kerner

    I find I had to ask my MIL questions that aren’t yes or no bc she has the same response to anything anyone ask her .”I don’t know” however when I ask her what is your moms name she knew right away even middle name and maiden name .. she knows people names but doesn’t know how she knows us and what our relationship is to her but does know her kids thankfully ever since Covid 2020 -21 she has gotten worse and currently declining as we speak

  • MJ, the daughter

    My father struggles with conversations because he no longer recognizes us or recalls answers to questions as simple as, “How is the weather outside today?” So, I purchased a “radio” that was designed for Alzheimers patients. It only has a large On/Off button (nothing more), so it is very easy to use. I then uploaded about 200 songs from 1955 to 1960, when my dad was a late teen. He hits “on” and the music plays as if it’s a radio. He can still sing the lyrics to these songs! He loves his music and we can sing the songs together. It’s provided a way for us to spend time together without having him stress about conversation. Sharing.

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