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Understanding the Language of Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care

Table of Contents

Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias present many challenges for caregivers and healthcare providers. There is a whole language associated with providing optimal care for those living with cognitive decline. Below are descriptions of 50 common terms used in Alzheimer’s and dementia care settings. Becoming familiar with these key words and phrases enables families and staff to better understand and meet the needs of those affected.

Memory care

Specialized dementia and Alzheimer’s care in a secured unit. These secured areas aim to support cognitive, behavioral, social, and safety needs.

Activities of daily living (ADLs)

Basic self-care tasks like bathing, dressing, eating, and toileting. As Alzheimer’s progresses, individuals require increasing hands-on assistance with ADLs from caregivers.

Instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs)

More complex everyday activities like managing finances, medications, cooking, housework and transportation. IADL impairment signals early cognitive decline.


Roaming or pacing without a specified purpose or orientation. This is a common and potentially unsafe behavior in Alzheimer’s. Strategies used include alarms, redirection, or secured units.


Increased agitation, confusion, anxiety, pacing and disorientation in the late afternoon, evening or at night. Low lighting, activities and medication can help sundowning.

Validation therapy

Communication techniques focused on empathizing with the feelings and validating the emotions rather than correcting the facts. This helps reduce patient anxiety and resistance.

Caregiver support

Formal services like counseling, education, skills training and support groups aimed at assisting family and professional dementia caregivers cope with unique demands.

Respite care

Short-term services that provide temporary relief to caregivers through adult day services, in-home aides or short-term nursing facility stays.

Neurocognitive disorder

Diagnostic term for cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s encompassing the symptom areas of memory, reasoning, language, behavior and function.

Frontotemporal dementia (FTD)

Progressive degeneration of the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes causing changes in behavior, language and social cognition.

Vascular dementia

Decline caused by impaired blood flow to the brain often from strokes or other vascular pathologies. Mixed dementia commonly refers to Alzheimer’s combined with vascular dementia.

Lewy body dementia (LBD)

Protein deposits called Lewy bodies affecting cognition, behavior, movement and mood. LBD shares Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s symptoms.

Early onset Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s with initial symptoms diagnosed before age 65, also called younger-onset. Requires specialized planning for patient’s life stage.


Language disorder affecting the production or comprehension of speech and the ability to read or write.


Loss of inhibitions, impulse control and socially appropriate behavior often displayed as inappropriate comments or actions.


Common behavior marked by restlessness, pacing, repetitive motions, yelling, aggression or refusal to accept care. Triggers should be identified and managed.


Increased reactivity characterized by hostile, angry or violent reactions to daily tasks like bathing. Can arise from fear, confusion and frustration.


State of decreased reactivity, movement and verbal response which may alternate with agitation or resisting care.


Fixed false beliefs not based in reality. Common dementia-related delusions include paranoia, belief that deceased loved one is still alive or the home is not their own.


Perceptual experiences like hearing, seeing, smelling or feeling something that is not actually present. Reported hallucinations should be investigated.

Sleep disturbances

Disrupted sleep cycles, nighttime wandering, daytime sleeping and disrupted REM sleep. Care techniques aim to reinforce day/night routines.

Reminiscence therapy

Technique that uses familiar objects, photographs and activities to stimulate memories and provide enjoyment. This provides a sense of identity.

Reality orientation

Repeatedly re-orienting persons by providing date, weather, surroundings, and names helps maintain a connection with the present.

Cognitive stimulation therapy (CST)

Engaging in activities like puzzles, games, trivia, reminiscing provides mental stimulation and often improves social interaction.

Music therapy

Listening to or singing music tailored to the person’s preferences has been shown to reduce agitation, improve mood and stimulate cognitive activity.

Pet therapy

Interaction with animals, either household pets or therapy animals, can provide sensory stimulation, pleasure and comfort to dementia patients.


Inhalation of essential plant oils like lavender, lemon balm, bergamot used to promote relaxation and reduce agitation. Oils are misted, added to baths or lotions.

Namaste care

Sensory-based comfort care delivered at end of life incorporating oils, touch, music and sensory stimulation to provide quality of life.

Activities program

Structured recreation and social programming tailored to residents’ abilities and preferences. This promotes engagement and dignity.

Wander garden

Secure outdoor areas and walking paths that allow residents to ambulate safely while reducing exit seeking behaviors.

Wayfinding cues

Signage, color coding and architectural landmarks help patients orient to location and navigate space. This reduces anxiety from disorientation.

Speech therapy

Addresses cognitive-communication disorders, swallowing impairment, mouth muscle weakness and assistive communication devices.

Occupational therapy

Focuses on adapting activities and environment to patient capabilities, maintain independence in daily tasks and improve safety at home.

Physical therapy

Exercises and activity programs aimed at improving mobility, balance and fall prevention and maintaining optimal physical function.

Palliative care

Focuses on providing pain relief, symptom management and comfort care measures rather than cure. Emphasizes quality of life for patient and family.

Hospice care

Interdisciplinary end-of-life care which provides medical, emotional and spiritual support. Hospice provides comfort measures and pain management.

Care plan

Outlines the individualized needs and personalized strategies for managing care including ADLs, behaviors, safety risks, preferences, abilities and communication style.


Refers to the cognitive capability to understand health conditions, risks and benefits and make sound decisions about treatment options and long-term planning. Capacity may fluctuate.

Power of attorney

Legal authorization given to an individual to act as substitute decision maker for financial, healthcare and personal matters if a person loses capacity to direct their own care.

Advance directive

Legal document used to articulate and record wishes for future medical care and end-of-life treatment for a time when a person may not be able to communicate those wishes.

Durable power of attorney for healthcare

Allows designated person to make healthcare decisions if an individual becomes incapacitated. This requires knowledge of the person’s care goals.

Dementia village

Specially designed, home-like residential community with features like a main square, gardens, shops and other destinations that allows residents to move about while feeling safe, engaged and independent.

Adult day care

Community-based structured program providing health, social and recreational activities, supervision and caregiver support during daytime hours while the individual still lives at home.

Home care

Assistance from home health aides, nurses, therapists and companions in the home performing light housekeeping, errands, bathing, medications, meal prep and other daily tasks.

Assisted living facility

Long-term residential living option that provides 24-hour supervision, assistance with daily activities, health services, dining, activities and transportation.

Nursing home

Skilled nursing facilities providing 24-hour medical, pharmacy and rehabilitation services for individuals with significant assistance needs, constant supervision, or more intensive health needs.

Residential care facility

Non-medical home-like setting with private or shared rooms and access to assistance with daily living activities, dining, housekeeping, social activities and transportation.

Long-term care

Continuum of services addressing persistent cognitive or functional incapacity and the need for care and supervision. This can be provided in home, community or facility settings.

Decisional capacity

Cognitive ability to understand medical facts, appreciate risks and benefits, manipulate information and communicate a choice when consenting to treatments. This can fluctuate.

Mixed dementia

Condition where abnormalities characteristic of more than one type of dementia occurs, most commonly Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia present together.

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