Staying Connected with a Loved One Who Has Dementia

Maintaining a relationship with someone who has dementia or Alzheimer’s disease can be challenging.

Not only do these illnesses rob a person of memory, but they eventually impair a person’s ability to understand and speak words. Conversation and visits can become difficult.

But your loved one needs regular contact with family and friends.

“People with dementia or Alzheimer’s can pick up on how you make them feel,” says Stephanie Doppler, resident care manager at Eventide Sheyenne Crossings in West Fargo, N.D. “Even if they don’t remember your name or who you are, you can still leave them with a positive, good feeling.”

As the relationship changes, there are some important ways to stay connected with those who have dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Tips for Interaction

  1. Listen for clues as to where a loved one’s reality is. As these diseases progress, mom or dad’s memory regresses. They might believe that they are in their 40s, working on the railroad, or in their 20s, raising small children. “Ask them to tell you what’s happening,” Doppler says. Help them reminisce rather than bring them back to the present.
  2. Be agreeable and find ways to offer comfort and reassurance. Don’t argue with your grandmother when she calls you the wrong name or says she doesn’t recognize you. Just be there as a friendly and comforting presence.
  3. Share musical experiences. Music memories do not fade as an individual’s disease progresses, Doppler says. Sing hymns together. Encourage your dad to play piano, if that’s something he’s done in the past. Listen to favorite songs. “Music is an important, useful tool,” Doppler says.
  4. Share memories. If your loved one no longer uses words to communicate, feed them memories. Tell your mom how much you enjoyed the chocolate chip cookies she used to bake or how much you enjoyed your dad’s woodworking projects. Find old photos and look at them together. Bring a quilt your grandma made and talk about it as she holds it. Read a short story or poem aloud. If faith was important to your loved one, pray together.
  5. Bring your kids or pets. If your loved one raised children or loved animals, bring small children or a well-behaved pet to the visit.
  6. Promote touch. Even if verbal communication is gone, human contact can speak volumes. Gently rub your mom’s hand or shoulders. Hold your grandpa’s hand. Be sure to read their signals so you can stop if they start getting agitated or upset.
  7. Find an activity for success. Search for activities that your loved one can still do. Giving them a purpose is important. Sweeping, setting the table, even blowing bubbles can provide a sense of accomplishment and value.

Staying Connected Long-Distance

If you don’t live close enough for regular in-person visits, staying in touch with a loved one with dementia can be even more difficult. Here are some ways to stay connected:

  • If a phone conversation is no longer possible, send cards or short notes. Everybody likes to receive mail. It’s another way of cultivating that feeling of closeness and comfort, that understanding that someone cares.
  • Check in regularly with staff to stay up-to-date on your mom’s health and well-being. This should eliminate any surprises when you do visit.
  • When you visit, try to not have certain expectations in mind. It can be difficult to see in-person how your loved one’s disease has progressed. Stay positive and accept your dad where he is at.

Above all, recognize that while the relationship has changed, maintaining connections with someone who has dementia is valuable.