Family's Questions About Alzheimer's Patients Can Put Nurses in a Bind

They often struggle to be honest but upbeat when answering inquiries, study says

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TUESDAY, Nov. 13 (HealthDay News) -- Many nurses and other health workers at Alzheimer's care facilities feel unprepared to tell patients' family members the truth about their loved one's condition, a new study finds.

They often have to struggle with the choice of being positive but dishonest, or candid but disheartening, the researchers said.

The study included 15 registered nurses, 13 care assistants or nurse aides, and four licensed practical nurses who worked at skilled nursing or assisted-living facilities in four states.

Another communication dilemma faced by the workers was what to say to relatives who did not have power of attorney but asked for details about a patient's condition despite health information privacy laws.

Many of the workers said family members often sought advice from them, while the workers believed their professional role was to offer the family options for care, according to the findings published online Nov. 13 in the Journal of Applied Communication Research.

The findings suggest "that nurses and care assistants working with Alzheimer's patients and their families face unique communication challenges in managing families' uncertainty that are not adequately addressed in the training they receive," study author Anne Stone, an assistant professor in the communication department at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., said in a journal news release.

"I think that discussing the experience of family uncertainty, and how to manage it, in training would help nursing staff," she suggested.

The study participants revealed several strategies they used to help them deal with the challenges of communicating with patients' families:

  • Health workers and families should develop a common set of care expectations.
  • Caregiving should be more visible. For example, a nurse might tell family members what care their loved one recently received, or a care assistant might perform some care tasks, such as trimming a patient's fingernails, in the family's presence.
  • Emphasize to relatives that coming to see the patient is also positive for the visitor.

More information

The Alzheimer's Association offers resources for family and friends of Alzheimer's patients.

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