Tips for Visiting a Family Member with Dementia
If you have a family member with dementia, you may wonder how to handle visits. What should you say, and how should you behave? Are certain topics off limits?
Dementia can affect individuals differently, but your relative likely will continue to appreciate visits by familiar people. Before you plan a visit, consider the following tips for spending time with someone with dementia.
Prepare for the Unexpected
Dementia can manifest in a variety of symptoms and behaviors, including memory loss, anxiety, frustration and combativeness. Understand before visiting that your family member may not recognize you right away or may act in a way that is new to you.
By preparing yourself — and other family members — before visiting, you can recognize that the behaviors are part of the disease process and do not reflect your relative’s feelings about you. If you anticipate that you may encounter a challenging situation, you can be prepared to respond in a constructive manner that keeps the visit positive overall.
How you approach your relative also can make a difference in the outcome of the visit. When you first arrive, introduce yourself even if you believe your family member knows who you are. By saying your name right away, you relieve your family member of the potential embarrassment of not remembering your name.
Try to make eye contact with your relative and smile. By doing so, you set the stage for a positive interaction, even if your family member cannot immediately recall your identity. Bear in mind that caring touches can serve as another effective way to communicate; consider gently touching your family member’s hand or arm as you speak.
Avoid talking down to your family member, even if his or her memory has deteriorated. By treating your relative respectfully throughout the visit, you lay the groundwork for positive interactions.
Adjust the Environment
When you arrive for your visit, assess any opportunities to make positive changes. Consider turning off TVs or radios — if doing so won’t disturb others. If the surroundings include loud conversations and other noise, ask your relative to go for a walk down the hall or outdoors if the weather is nice.
If other friends or family members go with you, try to limit the number of people in the room at the same time to one or two. Bringing in too many people at once may make your family member feel overwhelmed. Plan your visit for a day and time with the fewest possible distractions.
Manage Challenging Emotions
Many people with dementia experience changeable emotions, and your relative may become frustrated or angry during your visit. If something you’ve said appears to cause negative emotions, avoid arguing with your relative. Instead, express your understanding and offer support; the two of you will work out the problem together.
As dementia progresses, individuals may lose their ability to remember words or specific details, which can result in frustration and anger. If your family member does become angry, listen to what the individual is saying, and try to empathize. If a conversation becomes too uncomfortable, you can redirect to another topic or ask your family member to go on a short walk with you to get some fresh air.
Use Caution in Bringing up the Past
When bringing up a topic relating to your relative’s past, try to speak in a respectful way that makes your family member feel valued. Avoid giving the appearance that you are quizzing or criticizing the individual for failing to remember details such as names and dates.
Consider bringing along a small photo album or a few family photos to encourage discussion. Viewing old pictures may spark your family member’s memory, even if he or she doesn’t recall all the details. The photos may unearth positive emotions and feelings of reassurance at seeing familiar people and places.
Connect in the Moment
Try to engage with your relative about what is happening in the moment. Avoid asking questions about recent meals and other activities — which your family member may not remember. Instead, discuss objects and circumstances in the immediate environment. If your relative’s room has a flower arrangement, for example, you can comment on the beautiful colors or the types of flowers.
Slow down, and take time to notice details in the environment that you can use to make a connection with your family member in the present moment. If your relative enjoyed music in the past, consider singing together; you can bring along some recorded music if you don’t feel comfortable singing on your own. Music often can bring up memories and emotions, and you may find your family member becoming more animated or communicative.
Look for the Positive
During your visits with your family member, try to find the positive — whether it’s telling stories, using humor or simply spending quiet time together. By embracing the present moment, you can continue to share a special connection with your relative.
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