Visiting a Loved One with Dementia Requires a Delicate Balance

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by Ray Burow |

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Something as simple as an overnight visitor or a dinner guest can send a person with Alzheimer’s disease into a bit of a tailspin.

The person ringing the doorbell might not be a stranger, and they may have been a previous guest. However, to someone battling dementia, the loved one on the other side of the door may appear to be totally unfamiliar.

It’s natural, and even encouraged, for extended family members to visit loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease. But the act of entertaining often is left, awkwardly, to the caregiving family. Sadly, in an odd paradox for caregivers, entertaining can become more of a chore than a joy. This is especially true if the visitor doesn’t quite comprehend the veracity of Alzheimer’s disease, and how it works against a loved one’s ability to converse on a similar level as they have in the past.

My mother loved people, and she loved entertaining. But it became challenging as dementia continued its onward trek. I remember when a distant relative once visited, and the fourth time Mom repeated the same question, the visitor grew impatient. I noticed a slight annoyance to her tone when answering my mother. It was slight, and Mom didn’t seem to notice, so I let it go. But ignoring the terse response didn’t make it any less awkward as our family tried to continue with pleasant conversation over dinner.

On another occasion, a closer relative visited and was convinced that if Mom had more interests and distractions, her dementia would dissipate. I kindly explained to the visitor that denial had prevented her from accepting my mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. No amount of distraction would change the diagnosis. Besides, Mom probably was more involved with the outside world than her visitor was.

As a mother of four and a grandmother of five, our mom was constantly and happily carted back and forth from one event to the next. At basketball, soccer, and football games, she cheered from the sidelines on Saturdays and attended church on Sundays.

My mother lived amid a continual flurry of activity that kept her well-engaged. She was an avid gardener before dementia. One hot Saturday morning, we took her to a tomato field to glean for a local food bank.

Our loved ones with dementia need interaction with people who love them. Caregivers need it, too, but there are a few things that guests need to remember, including the following:

Avoid unfair expectations

The person you’re visiting is different today than when you last visited. You will have to carry the conversation. Keep it simple and kind. Repeating the same things over and over will be part of your experience. The visit is about connecting with the person who has Alzheimer’s disease. Don’t get frustrated, as they may not remember shared experiences.

When in doubt, ask

The primary caregiver provides daily care. They know what they are doing and the best way to do it. Ask if it’s OK before making changes or suggestions. As a visitor, it is important to adjust to the caregiver’s routine. You may be on vacation, but they are not.

Be a welcome guest 

You are a guest, but the caregiver might welcome an afternoon away from caregiving duties. You might be able to help, but don’t push. The caregiver has reasons for accepting or declining assistance. It may not make sense to you, but that’s OK. You just have to trust that they know best.

Though you’re a welcome visitor, anyone from the outside interrupts routine. It’s best to keep visits brief.

Be the type of visitor who is a breath of fresh air, and the caregiver will look forward to your return.


Note: Alzheimer’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Alzheimer’s News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Alzheimer’s disease.


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