With Alzheimer's disease affecting 5.2 million Americans over 65, there's a good chance you interact with someone who's dealing with an Alzheimer's diagnosis. Full-time Alzheimer's caregivers frequently adapt to read the signals they convey, but visitors don't always have that insight.
If you visit someone with Alzheimer's there are some things you can do to make your time meaningful.
Your friend or family member might not communicate the way they once did, so one of the best things to remember is that being patient is essential. Keep the tone of your voice even and steady, and take your lead from them.
Because people with Alzheimer's forget things, they might think today is 50 years ago. You know it's not 1960, but for them, it might really seem that way. What should you say?
There's really no right or wrong way to respond at first, but take your cues from them. “See how someone responds to a gentle reminder," says Dr. Steven Arnold of the Massachusetts General Hospital Memory Disorders Unit.
If you notice gentle reminders cause anxiety, it's counterproductive, so best to stop, says Arnold. “You want to encourage them to think for themselves, but don't push it until it upsets them or everything will start to fall apart," he says. If just being together is the goal, you don't need to push for factual correctness.
They might ask you the same question 10 times, and insist you haven't visited them in months even if you come every day. But they also might remember with crystal clarity, the funny family adventure to the Grand Canyon and can regale you with a story. Music might bring them to a pleasant memory or they might be happy for everyone to sing along to a favorite tune.
Sometimes a short visit is best. That can be especially tough if you have come a long way or if you haven't seen them for a while. But long visits can be tiring.
In the early stages of Alzheimer's, people generally enjoy social interactions, so getting them out of the house or making frequent visits will help keep their brains active, says Arnold. Take them out for lunch, for a walk, to the library—whatever they might enjoy. “There's nothing more stimulating to the brain than engaging with other people," he says, so keeping up visits is really a huge benefit.
Luckily, says Arnold, the prevalence of Alzheimer's has also made it more acceptable to talk about the symptoms of the disease. Older adults and their families tend to cut each other more slack and won't call attention to errors or repeated questions, so encourage your family member to continue going to a social group or go with them if they are particularly hesitant.
If you are unsure what to do, this brochure from the Alzheimer's Association gives you tips for how to plan a day.
If someone is in advanced stages of the disease, they might not recognize you and that can make them fearful or agitated. Before you go, check in with the family caregiver to see what is soothing, and constantly gauge how the visit is progressing. See if you can offer comfort of any kind. Your relative might not like being touched, but holding a soft blanket is often appreciated. Listening to music is another way to interact without talking. To limit competing distractions, don't try to hold a conversation over the music, just listen. And some find that communicating thorough art also helps.
Visiting a relative or friend with Alzheimer's is also a good time to take stock of how they are doing. Some people live alone or with family caregivers who themselves have health issues. Checking in gives you a chance to assess if they are taking their medications properly, if they are able to get around their living space safely (no cords on the floor, paper bags on the stove, slippery magazines, blocked doorways, or loose bath mats). Are they keeping up with personal hygiene and do they have enough groceries and fresh food to eat?
Throughout every stage of Alzheimer's visits are appreciated, but they may not always go as planned. Being open, flexible, and caring will help everyone.