What residents with Alzheimer’s really want for the holidays

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.

For families:

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.]

For caregivers:

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.

2. “It’s OK if you don’t remember.” Early-stage dementia residents still feel the stress of not being able to remember things, so don’t make it worse by pressing them on questions they can’t answer. Meet them where they are, not where you are.

3. Use the hand-over-hand method: Grasp your loved one’s hand from underneath, leaving them control of their own fingers. This shows them that you are connecting but not in an invasive, forceful way.

4. “Can you help me with…” Instead of saying, “would you like to…?” choose to say, “I’m doing this puzzle, and I really need some help. Can you help me?”

5. Sing a song: Maybe it’s a well-known song from their era, or a simple song everyone knows. Have a musician in the family? Bring that guitar along. Music is known to be one of the most powerful tools in memory care, because is capable of reaching into a part of the brain that still remembers.

6. Try art: Crafts keep the hands busy while still engaging the brain. Bring a shoebox full of scrap materials that will engage different tactile senses—fur, yarn, cardboard, plastic bottle caps, rubber bands, squishy things, etc. It doesn’t matter if you actually craft anything—just touching and feeling the different objects exercises the brain.

Above all, tell that person you love them, even if he or she might not remember it next time.

Have other productive ideas for making visits better? Share them with us on our Facebook page!

Topics: Alzheimer's/Dementia