Family visits can and should be positive

Dementia requires extra planning and patience

Visiting family members and friends is a time-honored and valued tradition. Being with others in conversation or in companionable silence, in laughter or even in tears reaffirms our need for connection and belonging. We want to be with people we care about. We need to be with people who care about us. Desire and need are at the heart of every visit.

A diagnosis of dementia does not diminish the desire or the need for being with others, but it does change the “how” of a visit. With a progressive dementia like Alzheimer’s disease, gradual changes in the brain caused by the disease alters abilities over time to remember, to carry on an involved conversation, to independently do those everyday activities that contribute to enjoyment and purposefulness. With dementia, a person is not able to participate as they once did in the easy give and take of a good visit, so family and friends are challenged to find new ways of being together.

Where to begin? Here are a few ideas for making visits positive:

Learn about the challenges that dementia is causing for your loved one. Knowledge supports realistic expectations. Realistic expectations minimize frustration and enhance enjoyment.

Relax. Bring yourself to the present moment and prepare to go with the flow.

Clear your mind of worries. Your loved one now experiences life at a more emotional level and, consequently, will feel your distress, sadness or anger. Wouldn’t it be better to convey affection, sincerity, respect and genuine interest? Your positive emotional state will contribute to a more pleasant visit for both of you.

Establish a visiting ritual. Saying and doing the same things upon arrival and departure can provide a comforting structure for both of you.

Have a plan, yet plan to be flexible. Consider a “visiting bag.” In this bag can be photographs, magazines, a favorite food, music, a deck of cards, lotion for massaging hands or feet, mail to open, cards to sign . . . Consider what can be enjoyed together. Keep it simple.

Learn to respond to emotional truths. Behind repeated questions or statements, scattered words or verbal expressions that may or may not have anything to do with present reality are very real emotions. Listen for emotional content. Clarify and convey understanding to what a person is feeling. When feelings are acknowledged, distressful feelings are diminished and positive feelings enhanced.

And when conversation becomes difficult … Remember that the sound of your voice is a beautiful sound to your loved one. Learn the fine art of monologue. Read stories or poetry. Say a prayer. Sing. Sit in companionable silence, connecting through presence and touch.

Be kind to yourself. Visiting can be difficult and sad. It can be draining. There will be times when a visit doesn’t go as well as you had hoped. When you make time to visit, be sure to make time to recharge yourself.

Just as in the past, visiting is a process that ebbs and flows with the needs of those involved. Quality of time is always more important than quantity of time. And to visit another is always valuable, even more so when your loved one has dementia.

Marilyn McKay is an Alzheimer’s Resource of Alaska Education Specialist.