I’ve had a lot of questions lately from friends, young and old, who are going to visit a family member who has some form of dementia. The questions focus on, “What do I say?” and “How do I talk to him/her?” and, truthfully, there isn’t one answer because each person with dementia is a little different!
So, if this is a circumstance you’re anticipating as the holidays arrive, this blog is for you!
First, lean into the relationship you already have with this person. Maybe this is your grandparent or a relative you don’t see on a daily basis – especially if you haven’t seen them in a whole year – it can be surprising to see how different their behavior might be. Dementia declines can occur suddenly or gradually over a longer period of time. There’s no standard for how fast things may move. Don’t be alarmed, but do notice, especially if the person isn’t at all like you remember them.
Second, notice the primary caregiver! This is the person who’s bearing the brunt of all the change you’re only noticing now. Imagine what the year has been like for them! Imagine how much more effort must go into helping a person with dementia get ready (physically and emotionally) for this holiday celebration. Take into consideration how hard all this might be for them and be compassionate if the caregiver seems a little worn or frazzled!
Also remember that your visit may not be remembered by the person with dementia, but it WILL be remembered, even cherished, by the primary caregiver! So be sure to make the most of your time with them as well!
Third, think before you speak if you’re visiting with a relative who has dementia. Here are some simple guidelines that may help you have a successful visit. . .
- Accept them as you find them – don’t express (to them) your disappointment if their condition has progressed or they seem very different than the last time you engaged with them.
- Try to ignore repetition. If they repeat a story or a question or a series of comments, just respond anew, as if this is the first time they’ve mentioned it – repetition is common and mostly uncontrollable.
- Use pleasant, happy exclamations that don’t expect or require a verbal response, like:
- “Good to see you!”
- “Look at all that snow!”
- “This is such a beautiful meal!
- Comment on anything positive, especially if you can give an honest compliment:
- “That’s a lovely holiday scarf you’re wearing!”
- “That looks like a new cap – it’s very sharp!”
- “It’s nice to hear you sing along with the holiday songs!”
- Go along with their version of reality whenever you can, (sometimes you can’t, but if you can do so) and take your cues from their primary caregiver. For instance,
- You hear them say, “My mom should be here soon!” (and you know that person is long-deceased) You respond, “I’m so glad to hear that!”
- You hear them say, “I went shopping last week and walked the whole mall!” (and you know they’re not capable of that) You respond, “Sounds like quite a shopping trip!”
- Don’t ask questions that “quiz” the person with photos saying, “Who’s this in the photo?” You’re likely setting them up for failure and it may deeply hurt their feelings when they can’t answer correctly.
There’s no perfect way for a holiday visit to unfold. It will be whatever it is, given the circumstances of the day. But how we react to the experience is entirely up to us. Bringing our wisest selves, our compassion and heart-felt appreciation for time with loved ones, even in the midst of illness, is key to coming away with a precious memory, rather than a sense of sadness and regret.
Wishing you the very best of holidays!