Anna* was a farm woman in her late 70s when a major stroke put her in a wheelchair and robbed her of her vocal and written language. Before the stroke Anna was active in her church and community and enjoyed spending time with friends. Her friends don’t come by so often anymore. Anna misses them.
Barbara* slipped away slowly. Once a very talkative social woman, she began to withdraw. If someone called, she gave her husband the phone. She began to do things she hadn’t done before. Barbara had Alzheimer’s, or a form of it. As long as her husband was alive, friends enjoyed coming by for a visit. After his passing, she moved to the care home. Barbara has trouble forming a sentence and seldom recognizes her visitors. But she knows that family members belong to her in some way and loves to be held.
Many people are uncomfortable with the Annas and Barbaras in their lives. They feel guilty when they think about them; feel they should go visit but keep putting it off. What are they going to say? How will they make the time go by?
SueAnn Drschiwiski is a retired nurse from Fort St. John, B.C., who spent years working with people like Anna and Barbara. She has some important tips for those who want to visit their family or friends and don’t know how.
1. Touch them. “People love touch,” Drschiwiski says. Depending on the relationship, touch the person on the shoulder, or give them a hug.
2. Look them in the eyes. “The eyes are the mirror of the soul,” she says. They will express much that the person cannot put in words anymore. Are they happy to see you? Are they feeling depressed?
3. Talk about things the person was always interested in. If they loved their garden, they will enjoy your descriptions of the neighbours’ or friends’ gardens. Tell them stories about people that were/are in their lives. Let them know what is going on in the community.
4. Do things with them. This is especially helpful if you’re not good at carrying a conversation on your own, as is necessary with people who’ve lost their ability to speak. Bring a craft project. Even if the person can’t help you with it, they will enjoy watching you and it gives you something to do with your hands. Do a puzzle together or play the memory game. Remember to adapt the puzzle or game to the new mental ability. If there is staff or family nearby they will be happy to give advice.
5. Watch an old movie together. Familiar movies often bring back memories and you could hear stories you’ve never heard before.
6. Listen to music together; sing together. Music especially goes directly to the heart. Many won’t speak anymore, but they can still sing the words to their favourite songs.
7. Look at photo albums together. Relive the old times. Talk about those family reunions, the crazy antics of Uncle Sam. The great thing about visiting someone with dementia is that you can tell the same stories over and over. (The memory of most stroke victims will be much better.)
8. Bring another friend or family member. Make sure you’re inclusive though so the person you’re visiting doesn’t get left out.
9. Take your babies or toddlers, if you have them. But be careful. If the person often acts inappropriately it may frighten the children. The children’s noise might aggravate the person. But most elderly folks love seeing little ones. Read a book together.
10. Visits don’t have to be long. Half an hour is fine; in fact, longer visits can often tire the person.
It is tempting to think that visiting someone with dementia, especially in the later stages, is pointless as the person will forget the visit soon after it is over. Care home personnel will be quick to say otherwise. So why should you go visit anyways?
- To let your loved one know he/she is loved.
- It makes them feel good while you are there. It will make you happy to make them happy.
- The person could have one of their ‘golden moments’ while you are there. A daughter lay beside her mother on the bed, when suddenly her mother turned to her, said her name and, “I love you.” She hadn’t said her daughter’s name in over a year.
- Often they are happier afterwards, sometimes for a day. The visit does good long after they have forgotten it.
- Everyone needs to be loved. Staff members don’t always have the time to spend with individuals as much as they would like.
The Annas and Barbaras in your life will thank you for making the effort to visit them. And you might wonder afterwards why you waited so long to go.
*Names changed to protect identity.