How to connect with someone who has Alzheimer's

Lisa Genova, neuroscientist and author of the novel Still Alice, on how to build a meaningful loving relationship with someone who has Alzheimer's disease. The key: instead of relying on memory and language, focus on the emotional connection.

VIDEO: How to connect with someone who has Alzheimer's

7 years ago
Duration 0:38
Featured VideoVIDEO: How to connect with someone who has Alzheimer's

When her grandmother developed Alzheimer's disease, neuroscientist Lisa Genova decided to find out as much about the disease as she could. She wanted to help her family find ways to maintain a real emotional connection to her grandmother who no longer remembered who they were.

Genova is the author of the novel Still Alice, which was made into an Academy Award-winning film starring Julianne Moore.

Lisa Genova
She says it's possible to have intimacy and a meaningful connection that's not dependent upon language and memory. "Human connection, dignity, love, and worthiness transcends your ability to speak, remember, and think."

Genova says that you have adapt in order to stay connected. One approach is to join the person with Alzheimer's in their reality. Resist the urge to correct factual errors and use the classic improv technique: "yes, and…" instead. 

If a person tells you they are waiting for their mother and you know their mother died fifty years ago, telling them the truth will make them experience the grief and loss again. Instead, Genova suggests saying, "Yes, and I'll wait with you. I hear your mother is a great cook." This can start a conversation and help forge a meaningful connection with someone whose short term memory is affected by Alzheimer's.

This approach bypasses short term memory and draws upon emotional memory, which is housed in a different part of the brain and operates differently, according to Genova. We feel emotion with our whole body — in our heart rate, our stomach, our hands. A person with Alzheimer's may forget the content of a conversation, but they can remember how they feel for hours.

The approach worked with Genova's grandmother: "She had no idea who we were and yet she trusted us because we loved her and you can feel that."

For those who may be skeptical that a satisfying relationship can be built without memory, language, or cognition, Genova points to the connections we make with babies. "If you have a six-month-old, this child only has six months worth of memory available to him or her and no language yet, and yet can you tell if that six-month-old feels loved? Absolutely."