How to Hang Out With Someone Who Has Alzheimer's


Last updated: August 04, 2009
grandfather granddaughter

My 87-year-old Dad, who has dementia, had nine visitors recently: his grandchildren, who ranged in age from 4 to 17. Four of my own kids and my six nieces and nephews made a lively parade as they threaded through the halls of the care facility where he's doing stroke rehab. Their chattering and bouncing reminded me that although visiting a nursing care facility can feel unnatural if you're not used to it, in some ways nothing could be more natural than what sometimes happens when life at either end of the spectrum connects.

Grownups, in particular, often find it awkward to spend time with a loved one with Alzheimer's or another form of dementia: What do you say to someone who hasn't followed the news in months or years, who can't remember what he ate for breakfast, who you know will try your patience asking you the same questions or getting stuck on the same anecdote over and over?

Watching these kids interact with Grandpa, though, was a living list of tips on how to make a happy visit.

  • Give a big hello. "Hiya Grandpa, it's me, Brock!" said the 5-year-old, getting both the warm welcome and the helpful self-identification right.

  • Get physical. The youngest, naturally, climbed right in Grandpa's lap. I also noticed him taking their hands as he spoke to each child and, of course, kids don't flinch. They like physical contact, too. Actions speak louder than words as cognitive ability declines, which makes body language and the reassurance of physical touch so important.

  • Start sweet. "So can we eat the cookies now?" someone piped up as soon as we'd said hi. Of course! A tub of cookies passed around the room puts everyone at ease because, at least in my experience, if there's one thing grandpas and children can't resist, it's the primal happiness of cookies.

  • Dive right in. "Grandpa, do you like Jimi Hendrix?" my teenage son asked after playing his guitar for him. I found myself biting my lip over this particular ice breaker: Grandpa didn't have any idea who Jimi Hendrix was 20 years ago, and certainly doesn't today. "Yes, I do," Grandpa replied, and they both smiled. That particular conversation didn't go anywhere, but at least my son wasted no time in picking up a natural patter.

  • Find common ground in music. I've previously written about my son playing guitar at the nursing facility and how music can be a stress cure. What's inspiring about kids is how comfortable they are just doing what they like "“ my son played some super-lively rockabilly jams "“ and their enthusiasm alone is what's welcomed and picked up on. I suggested a calmer classical song, and it didn't go over nearly as well. Hmmm, maybe Dad would like Jimi Hendrix!

  • Talk about yourself. Conversation covered last spring's track season, loose teeth, an accidental self-haircut with blunt scissors, favorite brands of cookies, what grade everyone would be in this fall. Point being, you can talk about almost anything, so long as the conversation isn't upsetting and doesn't feel like a "test" to the person with dementia. The minutiae of everyday life is often easier than discussing the past (and often makes for good laughs). It's not really what you say that matters; its that you're setting a pleasant mood as you're sitting there saying it.

  • Show and tell. Grandpa seemed very interested in all the wiggly teeth in the room. Not sure what the lesson is there; maybe another form of nonverbal communication!

  • Be patient with repetition. "And what grade are you in?" my dad asked each child over and over. (By the time we went 'round the room once, you can imagine the question seemed fresh to him when we got back to the first face.) The children, bless their hearts, never moaned, "You just asked me that!" They seemed to intuitively understand that he couldn't hold the fact in his head, and just as matter-of-factly kept on supplying the answer. Which is just what you should do. ("He forgets a lot," one fourth-grader observed. "It's just that old-timer's disease."

  • Look at old photos and ask questions. My Dad has a couple of short photo albums, the kind with just one or two pictures per page (not too overwhelming) in his room. The pictures are of his boyhood and hometown, which seems to be where his long-term memory is best preserved, providing the most comfort. "Who's that? Who's that?" one of the kids would ask over and over, and he'd tell them.

  • Go outside. There's a pretty courtyard outside my dad's room. "Can we go out there? Can we? Can we?" the kids quickly wanted to know. Kids are drawn to the outdoors, like few things (other than computers and video games!). We wheeled Dad out and sat in the sun, the change of scenery doing us all good.

Of course ten kids in a small room gets overwhelming fast, and so this visit didn't last long. I'm not recommending a crowd scene for a visit with someone who has dementia. But the cookies? The casual chitchat? These and all the rest of the things that kids do so naturally are worth sharing with someone you know who might be more leery of what can, with patience and insight, be a lovely, lovely visit.

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12 Comments So Far. Add Your Wisdom.

over 2 years ago

My husband has Vascular Dementia and we don't have 10 children in our lives. There is just us.

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almost 3 years ago

The wife and I are about to reach the end of the fifth year since she was diagnosed as being an Alzheimer patient. The previous thoughts are all important. That is, nothing beats personal attention. Like most everyone, I suppose, I had my first shocks with the "repeat" questions. Our relationship made a nice change once I learned to "just answer the question" even if it is the fiftenth repeat in the last day or two. Another activity, I believe, that does wonders for the situation is sharing a laugh about anything. I happen to like puns, and put them to work at every chance. The worst they are, the more we seem to laugh. This seems so lighten my wife's life far beyond the normal discussion of, for example, the stupidity of most of the usual political items in the media. Keep the laughter going, and also anything your loved one can rmember no matter how far that is in the history of your lives. We have been married for sixty one (61) years so we have lots of "past". And, if you have them, photo albums are and ever welcome item to share. (Even daily, if there's only one.) Getting old may not always be fun, but you can make it enjoyable with a little effort. Geezer81.

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over 3 years ago

What a lovely article!

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over 3 years ago

What great tips! If you have any question about how this would feel, imagine you were grandpa or grandma...or mom or dad. All that love directed toward you, plus sweets, and kids calling you by name and hugging you. It makes the suffering less. I agree, keep the visits shorts as the excitement can get grating on your loved one. I know when I visit my friend with dementia, she sometimes wheels herself out of the room and when I follow and ask why she's leaving, she manages to tell me the noise is too much.

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almost 5 years ago

These are all good ideas. I agree that you have to be sure the person is up for a large visit of people, but if folks arrive at the same time but can string in a few at time, it may be less overwhelming. Older people love children, but if they are alzheimers AND sick, older people can only take noise and disruption for so long. In visiting my elderly dementia/alzheimers family/friends, I have found that offering to brush their hair or help them put some lotion on their hands is usually readily agreed to. If you can take them for a walk, get them outside if you have a nice day or somewhere they can see outside. Identifying yourself and those with you are a must. Patience - well, be ready to repeat yourself and do so with a smile. They may have a problem remembering facts or people, but they have not forgotten what it feels like to be considered "old". My mother said that she notices the "winks and nods" of people when she repeats herself and it hurts her feelings. She knows she is not "on top of her game" anymore, but those little social things are still noticed! Remember that sometimes the problem is not the mental aspect - it may be more a hearing or vision issue!

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almost 5 years ago

Great thoughts! When my grandchildren are here, it is fun for my father with alzheimers to participate in whatever he can. Twice, at birthdays, balloons have been part of our day for our 3-6 yr. old grandchildren. We ALL had a great time batting them from one person to the next and great grandpa never got tired of it, much to the kids' deight!

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almost 5 years ago

I agree with most of what you say, but before any of that, be sure your "person" is up to a large group of people, especially kids. I've had that blow up in my face...usually better to limit it to 2or 3 at the most at a time. Watch for signs of agitation and end it quickly if you see a problem.

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almost 5 years ago

It's all helpful, I am just starting out with caring for my Pops finding out were he is at mentally and physically has been and eye opener to say the least. He has been living in another city and a couple of my siblings have been taking advantage of him from a money stand point so now he has no money other than him SS. I am the only child who is in a position with time to some what care for him along with my very understanding wife. It's great to have a spot on the internet which is this helpful. My wife and I have taken Pops onto our property in a fifth wheel trailer which is very nice for him he seems to be happy here. But doesn't seem to understand this is now the place where he will live from now on. We are going to his home in another town which he has moved from and pack more of his belongings letting him say what goes and what doesn't. Hoping this will help put some input to the move. we are also putting together a visual calender for him with a daily schedule. We are having some difficulty keeping him active he is 79 years young so activity I am hoping will help him have a more complete life and help him mentally also. For the most part he understands 50% of what is happening in his life right now lots of changes currently so he gets lost in it a bit. Anyway I just wanted to say not alone hoping the journey will be and enjoyable one.

For this question:

almost 5 years ago

It's all helpful, I am just starting out with caring for my Pops finding out were he is at mentally and physically has been and eye opener to say the least. He has been living in another city and a couple of my siblings have been taking advantage of him from a money stand point so now he has no money other than him SS. I am the only child who is in a position with time to some what care for him along with my very understanding wife. It's great to have a spot on the internet which is this helpful. My wife and I have taken Pops onto our property in a fifth wheel trailer which is very nice for him he seems to be happy here. But doesn't seem to understand this is now the place where he will live from now on. We are going to his home in another town which he has moved from and pack more of his belongings letting him say what goes and what doesn't. Hoping this will help put some input to the move. we are also putting together a visual calender for him with a daily schedule. We are having some difficulty keeping him active he is 79 years young so activity I am hoping will help him have a more complete life and help him mentally also. For the most part he understands 50% of what is happening in his life right now lots of changes currently so he gets lost in it a bit. Anyway I just wanted to say not alone hoping the journey will be and enjoyable one.

For this question:

almost 5 years ago

My grandchildren visit my husband frequently. To make it more comfortable for them, we plan to entertain him. Once a granddaughter did her tap dance routine, the grandson demonstrated Tai Kwan Do and talked aboiut his black belt. Another time all of the grandkids came and decorated their Easter eggs in the activity room. Lots of pictures and laughing. We "invented" a 500 mile race. We bought 4 tiny pull back cars in different colors. We made a simple track of plastic framing material and taped it to the table so the cars couldn't fall off. We had a stop ramp of the same at the end. Lots of flag decorations. All took their turn while the rest guessed which car would win. We can even play it again! Bob enjoyed it all and the grandkids felt needed.

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almost 5 years ago

much appreciated

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Anonymous said almost 5 years ago

Thanks...very helpful. Liked the cookie idea!!

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