Your presence is the present

By Robin Smart,
Public education coordinator, Alzheimer Society Waterloo Wellington

For many the holidays bring images of family, friends and festivities. It’s a time of year we often get together with folks we don’t see regularly, and we try to catch up with everyone. That can be fun, but for someone with memory or processing issues it can be frustrating.  Here are some ideas to keep the flow of conversation working for everyone in the room.

Slow down. Don’t rush physically or verbally.  Avoid bombarding with questions, information or comments. A slower pace allows everyone to keep up with conversation, and be better able to respond.

Work with the fact that communication is more than just words.  People may struggle to find words, finish a sentence or stay on topic.  Your reaction to these situations can have a significant effect on how the conversation might play out.  If you can stay relaxed, it will help the person stay calm. Try going with the flow and converse about the topic the person is on. Join the journey – connect, don’t correct.

Have a one-to-one conversation. Talking in a quiet environment with no TV or other distractions will help dialogue work. If you do need to repeat a question, be patient. Say it again in a few moments, exactly as you said it before, and in the same tone of voice as you originally asked it. 

If someone is struggling to find a word, should you finish their sentence or them? It all depends as each person has their own reaction to that kind of help. Here are some suggestions. Use reflection – it can be very helpful to first repeat back to them what you heard.  By doing so, the person can hear what they’ve said so far, which can help them continue the conversation. 

For example, if a person says “I’m looking for something to…uhhhh…”.   You might give the person a moment, and then assist by saying “so you’re looking for something you could…” Pause, and see if the person can fill in the blank. Alternately you may try one idea and one open option. If the person is still struggling to find a word, you might say “are you looking for something to drink or something else?” By offering one specific word and one overly general word, you’re less likely to distract the person from what they’re trying to think of. 

If conversation is lagging, consider talking about things in the here and now, that you can both see and think about. “This arrangement is nice.  I like the flowers, do you?”.  You could also bring a current article, poem or a joke to read, share and talk about.

If you are talking about memories from the past, avoid the phrase “do you remember?”  Instead, if you want to bring a story of the past into the conversation try starting with “I was thinking of the time…”  It is less threatening to the person with memory issues.

Remember, don’t try for perfection to the exclusion of enjoying your time together.

The “Open Mind” column is sponsored by community partners who are committed to raising awareness about mental health. For local mental health resources/information, visit or call 1-844-HERE247.

Robin Smart, Alzheimer Society Waterloo Wellington