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Caring Currents

How to Hang Out With Someone Who Has Alzheimer's

By , Caring.com contributing editor
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.