One of the hardest things for many families—and caregivers—is visiting over the holidays with loved ones who have dementia. All caregivers have seen it: The visiting family toddlers are squirmy and impatient, the teens are rolling their eyes in boredom and the adults are stressed out from not knowing what to do. But all those emotion-vibes transfer to the residents—They feel it, even if they can’t quite process it logically.
So, is there a better way to have a holiday visit? Luckily, the answer is YES.
The prevailing protocols for dementia care residents these days is “meet them where they are.” This means all caregivers (and families, too) strive to be with those who have dementia in whatever time era their minds are in at that moment, without giving any judgement or corrections.
Buckets of research have shown that what really matters is ENGAGEMENT, not memory accuracy. When a person with dementia is engaged—in a conversation, a game, a picture—the part of the brain that staves off further dementia gets a lot of exercise. And brain exercise is GOOD.
When interacting with loved ones with dementia, keep these facts in mind:
1. Alzheimer’s disease—like many other types of dementia—steals away short-term memories first. So, don’t be stressed if they don’t recall an event or visit from last week—it’s just how the disease works. Instead, focus on whatever they DO remember, even if it’s from 1948.
2. Their timeline isn’t the same as yours. The best “visit time” for you might not be the best time for them. ASK a caregiver who knows the resident well, and learn how to avoid the classic, rough time-zone of “sundowning,” which is a very confusing and agitated time for those with dementia.
3. Their mind still works, it just doesn’t work quite the same way as yours does. Always focus on what they CAN do, rather than what they can’t do.
4. Their hobbies and interests may have changed. Ask your loved one’s caregivers what his or her favorite hobbies are at the moment, and bring materials to join in that interest at your holiday visit.
5. They may not remember you, but they’re still a viable, active person. This is a tough one for many families. Your loved one may have new, healthy routines and relationships that are different from how you used to know them. Accept it, and decide to be part of it.
6. Realize that what’s most important is social/family interaction, not accuracy. It doesn’t matter that she doesn’t remember your baby’s name, or that he doesn’t recall how Uncle John is related to Cousin Jim. ABSOLUTELY NONE of that matters. What DOES matter is engaging your loved one in a simple conversation about something, or sharing a puzzle or toy, or talking about whatever interests them right then. [See how it works? It’s about THEM, not you.]
Help families learn these productive phrases and actions:
1. “Hi, I’m _____, and I just really wanted to visit you and say hi today.” Always re-introduce yourself at least once per hour. Some forms of dementia have a “remembering period” of only 20 minutes or so.