Communicating with a Whiteboard—Caregiver makes minor breakthrough

So many times when I write about my dad and his Alzheimer’s the posts are about loss and sadness. Today I’d like to report that my mom, who is my dad’s primary caregiver, made a minor breakthrough and discovered that he can write his responses to questions.

Earlier this week they were having dinner and he started pointing for something on the table, as he often does. Mom got tired of playing 20-questions with him. She grabbed a little paper tablet from the countertop and a pen, handed it to him, and said, “Write down what you want.”

Immediately my dad wrote “Lima Beans.”

The next day, my mom had prepared steak for him for dinner. She cut it into small pieces for him as she does most of his food. But he wasn’t eating it. He was just pushing it around on his plate. That’s not terribly unusual because he has started to play with his food some and at times gets distracted by that as if he forgot it was something he should eat.

Mom got the tablet again and wrote, “Meat. Don’t like the taste. Can’t swallow it. Can’t chew it,” down the page as a list. “Circle the reason you aren’t eating the meat,” she said. Dad circled, “Can’t swallow it.”

Tears sprang into my eyes as Mom conveyed this story to me over the phone. I guess with Alzheimer’s we assumed he wasn’t able to think about the answer to the questions. What Mom found out is that he is not able to speak the answers. His handwriting is difficult, but not impossible to read, but his printing is pretty clear.

Dad’s home health aide suggested we get the dry-erase whiteboards.

Image from

Yesterday I went to store and bought a couple of whiteboards and extra markers for them.

I was still at my parents’ house when Mom started working on dinner. Dad was eating some warmed-up french fries to tide him over. I was sitting at the table beside him when he started pointing at something. All I could see in the line of his point was the pepper shaker. “Do you want the pepper?” I asked. He shook his head no. “The salt?” Again, no. I got the whiteboard and asked him to write it down.

“I need, ” he wrote and then stopped, like he didn’t know the next word. “If you can’t think of the word, Dad,” I said, “try to draw a picture of it.” He drew a square. Then continued to write, “to wipe my fingers on.”

He wanted a napkin. He was pointing across the table to where my mom usually kept the basket of napkins, but they weren’t there right then because Mom had cleared the table to make room for me and their laptop (I was trying to save photos for them from their old desktop onto their laptop).

Dad’s communication breakthrough coincided with a breakthrough of my own. I keep telling Dad, “It’s going to be okay. I know this situation isn’t ideal, but we’re doing okay. Mom is taking good care of you. You are doing good. I’m proud of you. We’re going to get through this together.” It’s like a litany I leave him with when I go.

I think yesterday, for the first time, I started to believe it myself.

23 thoughts on “Communicating with a Whiteboard—Caregiver makes minor breakthrough”

  1. Are other people aware of this breakthrough? Is it common knowledge in the medical field? It seems that if that part of the brain is still functioning the possibility for other parts to be restored or that other compensations can take place are very promising possibilities.

    1. I don’t know, Carl. And I don’t know that the disease progresses the same for everybody. In fact, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. Many people are still able to walk and get around, where Dad really struggles with that.

      My mom asked the same question. She hadn’t read about that anywhere in the Alzheimer’s materials she has looked through.

      People with brain injuries often communicate this way, so it wasn’t that big of a leap.

      1. It is a great idea – we tried it with my grandmother when the strokes took away her ability to talk, but it also took away her ability to write also. I would have loved if we could have at least done handwritten notes. Instead, I’d read her card and books to her, sit quietly as she cried, then start reading again. I never did real good at figuring out what she wanted. I’m not sure my aunt did much better though.


  2. so very good, this breakthrough. if it has lessen your suffering one iota then it is major.:) (my humble opinion)

    it reminds me of Stephen Hawking, the English genius with severe motor neurone disease, he uses a computer to communicate. Mr Hawking is still in there, his mind, and thinking away. So is your dad. 🙂

    yay and hugs to you all 🙂

  3. I’m so excited! I’m jumping up and down inside! A breakthrough for your dad…your mom…and you, is a breakthrough for living with a little more quality. Hooooorrrraaaayyyy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    sending huge hugs…for one strike against the big “a”…hugmamma. 🙂

  4. Forgot to mention…I love your new photo. You encourage me to change my gravatar. Now I just have to take a picture of myself…

    i’ll kinda like…hmmm… 😉

  5. Oh, this is wonderful news, Christine! I’m so glad your mom thought to try writing, what a great discovery and help for all of you. Rejoicing with you.


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