How to Have a Meaningful Visit with a Loved One Suffering from Dementia
During the holiday season, many of us take time to visit older loved ones who may be suffering from dementia. Often these individuals live in a nursing home or assisted living facility, in a sterile environment with little or no personal items from their past. They may be in the early stages of forgetfulness, or at that point when they are no longer verbal. Many people feel uncomfortable spending time with family members or friends with dementia because it is difficult to have meaningful conversational exchange, and frankly, it can feel awkward. Today we will discuss a simple but highly effective way to create a meaningful visit with your loved one who is suffering from any level of dementia, and in doing so, create a MEMORY NOTEBOOK that can be used in many ways to help others also connect with your loved one.
First, gather old photo albums or scrap books to locate a few interesting pictures. Persons with dementia tend to retain early memories from their childhood through their 30’s. Photos of siblings, parents, pets, graduation day, wedding day, first car, memorable vacations, etc. make the best photos because they stir up so many of those preserved memories. If you can’t find any old photos, look for old letters or postcards, a newspaper clipping from a wedding announcement, or an award of some sort. It could even be an object such as a service medal, bowling trophy, or any other picture or object that would be important to that person. You don’t need a lot… just 2 or 3 photos / items will work. If you don’t want to lose the original photo or item, take a picture or make a copy of it.
Second, get a simple spiral notebook and in large letters, write “(GINNIE’S) MEMORY BOOK” on the cover.
During your visit, present one or two photos or other memorabilia to your loved one. Say “Aunt Ginnie, look what I found! Do you know who is in this picture? Then, give that person wait time. Ask them simple yes/no questions such as “Is that you?” or “Was that your dog Max?” The key is to take the burden off of the person with dementia from having to formulate words. You can do this by asking many yes/no questions or asking “choice” questions such as “Is that your brother Edwin, or Larry?”, “Were you in Delaware, or Maryland?” By asking simple, closed questions you allow the person with dementia an opportunity to engage in successful conversation.
If your loved one is still able to speak coherently, record their descriptions about the photos or items inside the notebook, and tape a copy of the original photo or a picture of the object next to it. Use LARGE print and write in short, concrete sentences. Example: “This was Ginnie’s wedding day. It rained that day. The flowers were pink roses. The cake was delicious. Everyone had a great time!”
If your loved one is in the advanced stages of dementia, they may not be able to respond to any of your questions. In this case, YOU provide the communication for both of you. Here’s what it might sound like: “Aunt Ginnie, look what I found! That’s you and your brother Larry… I bet you were only 5 years old there! I bet Larry was a troublemaker, wasn’t he? It looks like you were having a good time playing at the beach. I think you were in Delaware…” Make sure to keep your statements short and concrete. Talk SLOWLY. Use lots of facial expressions (smile, smile, smile) as even advanced dementia sufferers still recognize the love and kindness behind a smile. It doesn’t matter if they no longer recognize who you are… all that matters is that someone is taking the time to show kindness towards them. You can still record sentences in the memory notebook to describe the photos / items, even if they can’t contribute.
Finally, leave the memory notebook with your loved one sitting out in an easy-to-see spot. Encourage other members of the family to bring in photos/memorabilia to add to the memory notebook when they come to visit. Then, each time someone else visits, it serves as a communication tool for the person with dementia and their visitor. And when your loved one is alone, they can look at the memory book and reminisce, or share it with staff members at their facility. This allows the staff to get to know your loved one in a different way and will promote better staff-patient relations!