What Alzheimer’s Has Taught Me About Listening

dinner party

One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say. – Bryant Mcgill

About eight years ago my husband, David, began to show signs of early onset Alzheimer’s. In 2017 we received the formal diagnosis. Throughout this time our lives have continually changed and adapted to the symptoms and progression of this disease.

For the past three years, I’ve chosen to get up very early in the morning. This was a time when David slept soundly allowing me to fully focus on work, yoga, writing or simply enjoying a quiet cup of coffee. It was in these moments I was able to recognize that within the chaos of this disease were valuable lessons about myself, love, relationships and … communication.

What’s my most recent lesson? And how can it impact your communication skills?

My very simplified explanation of Alzheimer’s is that it kills one’s brain cells in no particular order, and it impacts everything. I visualize it like the old-fashioned Christmas lights my dad struggled with each year. When one light in a string went out or was loose, all the lights in that string went out. When he found and fixed that one light, everything came on again … until another one went out. At times there wasn’t a replacement bulb available and the string stayed dark.

About a year ago, the disease began to affect David’s relationship with language. At first, he struggled to find words and would become frustrated with himself for stumbling and losing his way. As a published poet and an amazing storyteller, this transition was particularly difficult.  Yet stories are still in his mind and they are important to him. He has not lost his ability to speak, to enjoy conversation.

At a recent dinner with friends, he sat at the head of the table and began to talk. He was absolutely effusive, with hand movements and emphasis and energy. What he said came out as a very detailed jumble … that made perfect sense to him.

Experience allowed the two of us at the table to nod our heads and comment from time to time. We said things like “Really?” or “That’s interesting.” He would laugh or nod and keep sharing his story.

Others at the table looked confused and uncomfortable. Having been a bit startled the first time I experienced this level of communication, I wanted to reassure them. But I didn’t want to interrupt David.

As we drove home from that dinner, David told me it was a wonderful evening.

In speaking with everyone the next day, some shared their confusion. They wondered if David had really been making sense, if they had missed something. The friend who had joined me in interacting with David put it most succinctly. She said: “No, he wasn’t making any sense but he did want to be heard.”

It’s that simple. When we are in conversation with anyone – prospects, clients, friends, family, strangers – we must remember that they want to be heard. We don’t have to agree, or disagree, or even fully understand … but we can listen. This not only shows our respect for them but it also allows us to really communicate.

If you found this article resonated with you and you’d like to read about more lessons I’ve learned from living with Alzheimer’s, here they are…

What Alzheimer’s has Taught Me About Communication

What Alzheimer’s Has Taught Me About Work/Life Balance

What Alzheimer’s Has Taught Me About Branding


8 thoughts on “What Alzheimer’s Has Taught Me About Listening”

  1. I’ve been supporting both parents with Alzheimer’s. dad passed two years ago. Mom still manages. This resonates. Mary Jane you have always been a great listener. This story made me smile and remember. The gift of being heard is so precious.

    • Wow, Debbie, supporting both parents. How challenging for you and for your parents. Alzheimer’s is such a wild roller coaster of an illness. Thanks for adding to this post.

      • Thanks so much, Glenn. Recent work with new graduates was a strong reminder to me that listening is a skill and needs to be practiced throughout our lifetime.

  2. Thanks for sharing this story.
    To be heard is so important without receiving back judgement or advise.
    Listening is a learned skill to actively listen so others are heard.

  3. MJ I’m learning that I don’t have to understand but just acknowledge Grant’s comments He is slowly, quite slowly, losing comprehension on much except what is right in front of him. Good news he’s going to Northwood Day Program 4 days a week and that’s a wonderful help to me.
    He gets stimulated, the nurses love him and I have 5 hours to do some things.
    I am struggling with depression but keep trying to find ways to feel positive and like I’m still me but it’s hard
    Thanks for your insight Penny

    • Oh Penny! Thanks for sharing your journey here. It is so hard. I lived with only 20 hours per week of help for a very long time and it is a tremendous challenge. Know that you are doing a great job to support Grant … and that you have to look after yourself as well. A very difficult thing to balance. I’ll be in touch soon.


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