Alzheimer's Awareness

Nov 24, 2020

Speech-language pathology can serve as a tool for improving communication with those experiencing dementia.

More than 5.8 million people are living with Alzheimer’s Disease in the United States. This number is expected to rapidly increase as the country’s population ages, which makes it increasingly important to educate the public about the degenerative brain disease.

Though the field of speech-language pathology is often overlooked when it comes to working with people with dementia, UMD Associate Professor Jolene Hyppa-Martin suggests people can look to the discipline for help maintaining and improving communication with those experiencing Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia.

“When people think of speech-language pathologists, they often think of us helping children who can’t pronounce their R’s," says Hyppa-Martin. “They don’t necessarily know we have scientifically-based interventions for assisting people who are experiencing dementia.”

Hyppa-Martin explains that Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, an umbrella term for a collection of cognitive impairments, including memory loss and difficulties with attention, problem-solving, word retrieval, and language.

During Alzheimer’s Awareness Month in November and beyond, Hyppa-Martin wants people to be aware of the Robert F. Pierce Clinic’s services. The clinic provides comprehensive speech, language, and hearing services to individuals and families in the region.

The clinic also wants to serve unmet needs in the community related to dementia. It offers information and support for care providers. It also provides direct services to those experiencing dementia. Hyppa-Martin gives the example of “spaced retrieval training.” This clinical intervention helps people with dementia to recall specific information. It can be useful for teaching a person who is moving to assisted living to memorize a new address, for instance.

Through Hyppa-Martin’s research in the UMD Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, she has established some best practices for better communication that can be helpful to anyone who interacts with people who have memory issues due to Alzheimer’s and dementia, from family members and acquaintances to service providers and business owners.

Keys to better communication

  1. Manage the environment
    • Reduce noise and distractions, speak face-to-face at their level, provide adequate lighting
  2. Orient and introduce
    • Offer and repeat key information naturally while you chat
  3. Reduce the use of pronouns
    • Use names rather than pronouns like “she/he/they”
  4. Provide non-transient/visual cues and a topic to talk about
    • Use photos or objects as conversation pieces
  5. Reminisce about the distant past
    • Talk about growing up on the farm (not last week’s shopping trip)
  6. Avoid correcting or criticizing
    • Validate the underlying feeling or intent of what they meant
  7. Help by providing a starter phrase
    • We all occasionally lose our train of thought, repeat a bit of what they said to get the conversation going again, “So, your trip to Vail…”
  8. Ask choice questions 
    • “Would you like coffee or tea?” requires recognition, not recall
  9. Keep your nonverbals positive
    • Convey pleasant attentiveness, not tension
  10. Dignity and respect
    • The person’s wishes are worthy, unique, important. Support them in maintaining socially-valued roles