Often, friends and family members stop visiting a loved one with dementia because they don’t know what to say or do. Planning ahead for a visit can help create a positive experience and alleviate stress for both the patient and visitor.
For caregivers, when having visitors, limit to one or two people at a time. Too many people can be overwhelming. Schedule visits during the time of day when your loved one is at their best. Minimize distractions by keeping the environment calm and quiet. Turn off the TV or loud music.
Here are some ways families and friends can prepare for a better visit:
Adjust to your loved ones, not the other way around
“The adjustment in your communication needs to be made 100 percent by the person making the visit,” according to dementia care specialist Vivian Green Korner. “You need to live in their world and not expect them to come into yours. Conversations may become less intellect-to-intellect and more emotion-to-emotion.”
Your supportive, encouraging visit can change that person’s feelings and behavior creating a positive emotional impact that often lasts longer than memory of the visit.
Focus more on what abilities the person still has such as memories from decades ago, the ability to respond with humor in the moment and connecting to music.
Engage in the moment and use concrete objects
“Visits are all about engagement,” said Korner. “Living in the moment is what happens when you work with people who have dementia.”
Use concrete objects to start a conversation. For example, if you have some pictures from years past, select a few or bring an album to your visit. Sometimes people are able to recall specific names or events by seeing photos.
Consider bringing a picture book of a favorite hobby, place they love or a time in history they lived through. Perhaps include a toy, game, a special food treat in your reminiscence box. And don’t forget music!
Connect through eye contact and touch
Smile when you walk in the room. Make eye contact with the person, stay at their eye level and introduce yourself, as they might not be able to place you. Speak slowly, in short sentences, and give them extra time to speak or answer. Use open-ended questions and go with the flow of their conversations even if they talk about things that aren’t true or don’t make sense.
“Touch is a powerful communicator, even when language skills are diminishing,” said Paula Spencer Scott, author of Surviving Alzheimer’s: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers. “A gentle pat to the back or knee a few seconds before ‘hello’ cues the person’s attention and, more helpfully, reduces the odds of starting off the visit on a startled, panicked or irritated note.”
Redirect challenging conversations in creative ways
If a loved one gets angry or frustrated, don’t argue, confront or try to reason with them. Empathize, agree and try to distract them with a different subject or activity.
“Ask permission to talk about something else,” said Korner. “Say, ‘I’m hearing this is upsetting to you, so would you mind if I change the subject and we talk about another issue I’m having?’ Or get up and physically move, and make up a reason. Say, ‘I have a cramp in my leg; would you mind if we walked at little?’”
“Sometimes a quick change of scene or allowing time for the person to calm down if they get angry can quickly change the person’s mood,” said Korner. “The good news is that even if they get angry, they may not remember it a few minutes later, so why should you hold onto it?”
Alzheimers Coachella Valley offers a free program, “Meaningful Conversations with the Cognitively Impaired Person,” designed to help prepare family and friends have a positive, meaningful visit with those who have dementia. The two-part session live streams the first two Mondays of the month. Call (760) 776.3100 for information and to register for the program.