Dementia is a general term that covers all types of issues that cause a decline in mental abilities. It includes Alzheimer’s disease and dementia secondary to a stroke.
This time of year, after the holidays and before spring, can be trying for all of us. Those suffering from dementia, especially those who are institutionalized, find this time of year even harder. After the holidays, the number of visits and visitors decrease to zero.
Increased loneliness and depression are often the result. For those of us that try to visit, some find that, without the holidays to celebrate, it is hard to connect and avoid visits.
What can be done to make it easier to visit someone suffering from dementia? Here are a few ideas:
Realizing that dementia affects short-term memory first and worst, bring photographs (or a photo album) of family members. Bring large pictures as vision often fades with aging as well. Sit with the person you are bringing them to and talk to them about them.
Describe the people in terms of those they might remember, “This is Joe’s son, your grandson Joey.” Label them clearly on the back or in the album if you plan to leave it with them. You don’t need to bring a lot of photos or a large album. A few will do. Too much information can be frustrating as well.
You may not like “Old Blue Eyes” and anyone from “The Rat Pack”, or even know who they are but, while you are visiting, listen to music that they would have listened to. It helps with their memory and is relaxing for them, too.
Sometimes conversation is too taxing, so you can sit together and watch old TV shows. If there is no TV, the Internet is available, and you can bring a computer – you can watch online. Sites such as Internet Archive can help find old shows.
Conversation is really the best for interaction and retrieving old memories. Even if you have heard it all before, ask about the past. Ask questions you know the answer to.
Be patient while they tell you what you already know. It will help them connect with themselves. Even things that might seem obvious such as, “Where did you work? Grow up? Go to school? What did you like to do best?” This visit is not about you. It is about easing their loneliness.
One more idea that can benefit you and anyone suffering from dementia when you visit … if it works for you … and the institution.
Okay, not exactly puppies but dogs. And not just any dog but a calm, friendly and well-behaved one. The dog must also be up-to-date on vaccinations. Do check with the institution to ensure this is acceptable.
If you do not have a dog, you might be able to borrow one. Some shelters have a pet therapy program and you can schedule with them to borrow a dog for a visit. Other places and people have specially-trained therapy dogs that can also be scheduled.
Dogs are great for spreading joy and calm. They love just about everyone unconditionally; who doesn’t need that! Petting a dog lowers heart rate, blood pressure and STRESS! So, a visit from a dog is a health benefit.
That is, as long as no one is allergic! Sneezing can raise blood pressure. Itchy, watery eyes are no fun so check before bringing a dog in, if there are allergies. Again, if you are visiting the loved one in a nursing home or hospital, be sure it is allowed.
There are types of dogs that are more, shall we say, hypoallergenic than others. Dogs that don’t shed but have coats that must be cut have less dander and cause less reactions. But don’t guess. Check the policy first.
If you have a loved one suffering from dementia in a hospital or nursing home or homebound, a visit will go a long way. It will be good for their overall well-being. It might be good for you as well.
(NOTE: Cynthia Tomusiak is a writer and professor with an emergency services background. Tomusiak is an Emergency Medical Technician with a master’s degree in Threat and Response Management for the University of Chicago. She has been in the fire service for 27 years and has achieved the rank of captain.)
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