Is it worthwhile to help Mom create new friendships in her new communtity with moderate Alzheimer's?

1 answer | Last updated: Oct 13, 2016
Terra firma asked...

My 75 year-old mom is experiencing mid-moderate stage Alzheimer's. She lives with my husband, myself, our dog and three cats. She attends Adult Day Care three days a week (a godsend), and I care for her the remainder of the time.

She lived alone until June of 2009, and has been a part of our household since then. While living on her own, Mom was extremely active socially. She participated in many organizations, and has always enjoyed a very busy lifestyle. Actually, it was the fact that she became increasingly confused regarding social dates that finally broke through my denial to the point that I could face her dementia as more than just 'forgetting'. Because we were on the other side of the country, it was impossible to tell what she was experiencing, as she always presented herself as very happy and coping well over the phone. (She's extremely verbal, and exceptionally good at 'covering'). Until I was contacted by two of her friends regarding their concerns over her forgetfulness, I had assumed all was well. Since moving in with us, her lifestyle has changed dramatically. Because we had to re-locate her from Washington State to Connecticut to live with us, she is now 'far from home', and has little interaction with her former social circle - email is her primary contact with her old friends.

My question has to do with social/cultural 'outings'. She is at the point where it is nearly impossible for her to form new friendships, as she is unable to remember anything regarding a new acquaintance. I'm torn. On one hand, she expresses a desire to be socially/culturally involved. "I want to attend this poetry group" - "I want to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art". However, when I drive her to her church service, or take her to a cultural event, she seems to regress and become agitated during the days that follow. I'm wondering if it is truly in her best interests to continue to try to participate socially, or whether it is more important to keep to the security and safety of her daily routines. So is it helpful or disruptive for her to be exposed to social situations filled with unfamiliar people?

I don't want to deny her the pleasure of 'outings', but I begin to wonder if they do more harm than good.

Any thoughts from those who've encountered similar situations? Thanks.


Expert Answers

Jytte Lokvig, PhD, coaches families and professional caregivers and designs life-enrichment programs and activities for patients with Alzheimer's disease and related dementia. Her workshops and seminars help caregivers and families create a healthy environment based on dignity and humor. She is the author of Alzheimer's A to Z: A Quick-Reference Guide.

Your situation is shared with numerous, if not the majority, of children in long-distance relationships with a declining parent. A person with dementia is often able to keep up a telephone conversation for ten or so minutes without giving away her progressing memory-loss and confusion. We can't help but think of our parents as we've always known them in the past and as long as they sound the same, we have no reason to suspect problems. It often takes a friend or neighbor to alert the family to the severity of her problems.

Now that she's living with you, it's a positive sign that your mother maintains her strong desire to experience new things. You don't want to discourage her spirit, but since she has had negative reactions at times, her choices are probably too ambitious. Too many people, too large a crowd, and little chance to connect with any one person, especially if she's there by herself.

There are a couple of options for you. You can choose events that you both enjoy, so you can attend them together. This will allow you to help her connect with a single person or a small group among the masses. We tend to assume that people with memory loss are no longer able to form friendships. This is a fallacy. Feelings and personal needs are still very much intact even after a person can no longer express them verbally. We humans are social beings; bonding is instinctive and people with dementia will connect with others long after they are able to hold up their end of a conversation. You definitely want to support your mother in forming new friendships, even if she has problems remembering names. A good choice is to find a small group, such as a book club at the library. Accompany your mother initially to help her establish her footing. You may even help her get a poetry group going there or at the local senior center. It'd help your mother if you'd invite the group to meet at your house occasionally. Don't worry about her remembering details such as names. You can help her by talking about the good times she shared with them before (on your way to the event, so it's still fresh when you get there.)

PS. Two years ago we started an Alzheimer's Café in Santa Fe, NM. It has been a great venue for people with memory loss like your mom to meet new friends in a non-pressure, relaxed and fun environment. (www.alzheimerscafe.com) - If you want help starting a café in your area, contact me.