A little help for visiting those with memory loss

Some good advice in Dear Abby today about visiting friends or relatives with dementia:

DEAR ABBY: I have been a social worker in two skilled nursing homes for the past six years. I often hear visitors approach patients with dementia and say, “Do you know who I am?” or “Do you know who this is?” It’s like giving the person with dementia a test, one which the person will often fail. It would be more effective to approach the person and say, “It is so nice to see you. I am (whomever) and knew you (in whatever circumstances).”

Persons with dementia do not need to be reminded that they don’t recall something. Most of them know it. Even relatives — brothers, sisters, sons and daughters — may need to introduce themselves to their loved ones. Rather than giving the person with dementia a test when you visit, set up the visit to succeed by making simple introductions.

Remember, people who have dementia can remember things that happened a long time ago, but they may not recall what happened in the last five minutes. Visitors should talk about the “good old days” and everyone will experience a good visit. — P.B. IN NORTH CAROLINA

DEAR P.B.: Because increasing numbers of individuals are being diagnosed with dementia, I hope your suggestion will be taken to heart by my readers. In cases like this, the visitor should expect to be the one who guides the conversation. It’s important to keep visits positive, loving and stress-free.

I think what’s hardest about this are the in-between stages: when on some visits, the person recognizes you, and on others they don’t and you’re not sure what to expect each time.  I suspect that visitors don’t want to assume too much impairment.  That is, no one wants to introduce themselves to their mom or brother unless you’re sure they don’t know who you are.  But, as P.B. points out, asking the visitee to identify their visitor isn’t the right way to go. Are there ways that an upfront, explicit introduction could be made even smoother for everyone?

For example, could some intermediary (caretaker, nurse, or whoever) say, “Your daughter, Sue, is here to visit you,” and present Sue–thus reintroducing the visitor in the form of an informational message?

Dementia and memory loss are such painful, difficult things to deal with for everyone….there’s no single good answer, and no amount of smoothing over can erase how hard everything about this is.  But I’m glad to have this bit of advice from P.B. in N.C. for how to keep visits light, pleasant, and less stressful!

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