The news that a friend or relative has Alzheimer’s disease is not only devastating—it also can be intimidating. Most people don’t quite know what to say or do when they are with the person. Yet there are specific ways you can stay close with the loved one and contribute to his/her ongoing comfort and serenity, says medical social worker Nancy Pearce, author of Inside Alzheimer’s: How to Hear and Honor Connections with a Person Who Has Dementia (www.InsideAlzheimers.com). She offers the following guidelines, which work whether the person was recently diagnosed or is now quite impaired…
Decide to connect. Before every visit, think about what might be getting in the way of interacting with this person. Often it’s our innermost feelings, such as, This is just so sad or This is too hard. Such thinking distracts us from being truly present.
Another obstacle to connection is how you communicate nonverbally. A person with dementia still can feel your tensions, distractions or apathy because these are broadcast through your stance and voice. Before you go into the room, take a moment and breathe deeply to release tension.
Let go of rigid thinking, and think about what is best for the person. Case in point: Pearce once worked with a 92-year-old man who every day anxiously asked for his mother —and every time was told that she had died. Each day, he grieved anew. His caregivers meant well, but their concern with accuracy actually was cruel. When his caregivers realized what really was behind the request—the need to feel taken care of—they were able to make the patient’s life much more peaceful. For example, when he wanted his mother to do something for him, his caregivers let him know that she could not be there at that time, but that they would help him instead.
Open your heart and enter the person’s world, rather than getting caught up in the nuts and bolts of the disease by asking about symptoms and so on. Pearce knew a man with dementia whose longtime golf buddy picked him up every week to play. When the man could no longer hit the ball, his friend found other things for him to do at the golf course—drive the cart or clean the balls—so they still could happily share their mutual interest. There was another woman whose beloved grandmother had Alzheimer’s, and as a result, the grandmother often was angry. After much trial and error, the woman learned that what opened both their hearts was to watch old movies together.
Embrace silence. When it comes to talking, less can be more, especially for people who may be frustrated about losing their ability to speak and comprehend. You don’t have to fill every silence with conversation.
Express gratitude. No matter how advanced the disease, notice and thank the person for all the little things you appreciate about being with him. You might simply thank him for allowing you the time spent together.