The best rule of thumb when visiting an elderly family member with dementia is to keep your visits short and stress free. Center yourself before arriving and take a deep breath if/when you feel stressed. It does wonders for your central nervous system. Pre plan your visit by having a few topics in mind to share with your loved one. Often times people with dementia do not have the ability to engage in a two way conversation, but they will be happy to listen to you.
When you enter the visitation space, introduce yourself. People with dementia travel back in time in their mind and now that you are older, you may resemble your mom’s sister or her mother. Take the time to say, “Hi mom, it’s me Lori, your daughter” (or son or husband or friend, etc…) the point is to remove the stress of remembering.
Avoid asking questions like
“What did you have for lunch today”
“What did you do today”
Your family member simply does not have the ability for short term recall and it causes stress when you ask questions they cannot answer. Don’t argue when your mom says your sister never visits, even though you know she was there yesterday. She simply can’t remember and to argue adds stress.
Here are some things you can do that will be therapeutic, relaxing or engaging
• Play music your family member loves – people generally gravitate toward music from their early late teens and 20s. Depending on your family member’s age, think Patsy Cline, Sinatra, Big Band Orchestras, Rosemary Clooney, Dinah Shore, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Bobby Darin, Englebert Humperdink, Elvis Presley, Neil Sedaka, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, etc…
• If you have a smart tv- use YouTube to call up old movies, music, karaoke music, dance numbers from old movies (think Fed Astaire and Ginger Rogers) or virtual travel clips (there are many)
• Move…dance or do a seated sway to the music if safe for your family member
• Take pictures of old pictures (or scan them) and make an album on your phone or tablet to share with your family member
• Use YouTube or an app on your smart phone for guided meditation
• Help your family member retell a funny family moment or story
• Create a collage from magazines.
• Twist large nuts and bolts together or sort them in containers.
• Do a color-by-numbers piece or an adult coloring project
• Fold clothes- pick a drawer or one shelf, sort socks, fold towels and wash cloths
• Organize jewelry
• Look at coffee table books- travel, babies and animals are popular
• Clip coupons with safe scissors (rounded tips)
• Color a flag, flowers or sports team insignia
• Play a game – could be as simple as sorting playing cards
• Make cards with stamps, stickers and colored pencils
• Mold clay (like playdoh) it’s way more about the kneading and tactile stimulation than it is the shape
• Do simple jigsaw puzzles
• Sort coins
• Buy moisturizing lotion scented with your family members most favorite fragrance and perform a gentle hand massage. Keep in mind the elderly bruise easier so gentle is key.
• Bring a nice hairbrush and provide a gentle relaxing brushing
• FaceTime a family member or close friend. Arrange ahead of time if possible so they are expecting your call.
• Bring your (well behaved) pet
• Watch a sporting event together or use YouTube to watch something about a favorite sport or pastime. You can find lots of old games that have been recorded, hall of fame inductions, how to videos, etc…
• Use a streaming audio or video service to see old clips of the Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Joan Rivers, Dinah Shore and more
Whatever you choose to do, enjoy your visit and savor every moment. Don’t feel guilty about a short visit. It is generally best for your family member. When you leave, let the caregivers know so they can engage your family member and you can slip out quietly.