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Living in the
present

How visits can buoy people
living with memory loss
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By Terri Bowser
Mar/Apr 2019

Living with dementia is hard. It's hard for the people with the disease, and it's equally hard for the people who care about them.

Emotions can be especially high for family members and loved ones when visiting someone with dementia in care. For some, these visits can be too much to bear.

Where once they knew a father, a mother, a wife or a husband, they now see someone living with the brain changes that come with dementia or Alzheimer's disease, unable to recognize family members and friends, or call them by name.

In these challenging circumstances, people are sometimes uncertain how to react. Indeed, some believe it might be better to stay away. What is the point of visiting a person when he or she cannot remember who you are or what you've even talked about?

But, as someone with a personal and professional understanding of dementia, I can tell you that would be a mistake.

While a person with dementia may no longer have their memories, they still retain their feelings and emotions. They still want to feel valued and important. They live only in the present tense. By visiting them, you increase their quality of life, and the good feelings last even after the visit ends.

And it's a two-way street. Your visit also helps you renew your connection to them.

That said, you may be worried about what to do while visiting a person with dementia. It can be upsetting when they don't remember you or your relationship to them.

The best way to handle this is to manage your expectations and plan ahead. As people with dementia often have trouble initiating an activity, be prepared to direct the visit.

Some activity suggestions include:

  • Take a photo album and go through the pictures in order to stimulate conversation.
  • Play music, and sing along or just listen to the rhythm.
  • Share a cup of tea or coffee and a muffin or cookie.
  • Read the newspaper together, and talk about the stories.
  • Work on a craft or hobby, especially if it's something they love doing.
  • Bring your pet and share that unconditional love.
  • If the weather is nice, go outside for a walk.
  • Help them write cards or letters to their friends and family, to help them maintain important links in their life.

Photo of an elderly woman doing a puzzle with a younger woman

Here are a few other dos and don'ts of visiting someone with dementia:

  • Gently remind the person about who you are and your relationship to them. Try to maintain eye contact and respond to the emotional messages they communicate to you. Be kind and friendly. Ask them what they want to talk about, and don't rush their reply.
  • Appropriate physical connections are important. Hold their hand, and give them a hug upon arrival. Even if they don't understand your words, your tone of voice will come through, as people never lose the ability to read these non-verbal cues.
  • Don't quiz them. It can be upsetting when you ask what they had for breakfast, when they can't remember. And don't correct them. Yes, their spouse might have died 10 years ago, but by reminding them of this fact, you are making them re-experience the shock of loss.
  • Don't use "elder speak" on them. This is the equivalent of baby talk. Even late into the disease they know if you are speaking to them like a toddler, even if they don't understand the words.
  • If the person becomes upset when it is time for you to leave, ask a staff member to stay with them or provide a distraction when it is time to go.
  • Remember that quality of time is more important than quantity. Even a pleasant 20-minute visit once a week will make a big difference.

It may seem that a person with dementia won't remember your visits, but by going to see them, you are letting them know that they are valued and important. It is also a support and comfort to other family members to know that you cared to take the time.

Living with, and caring for someone with dementia can lead to feeling like the most important things in life are slipping through your fingers. Your gift of time can have a huge impact. So please, make a plan and visit a loved one soon.

Terri Bowser is Regional Educator Rehabilitation, Healthy Aging and Seniors Care for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. This column was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, March 22, 2019.