Wow, you guys. I’ve gotten a lot of feed back from my last post, Why You Should Visit Your Confused Loved One-Even If It Makes You Sad. Thank you for sharing 261 times! If it makes just one person decide to go visit their loved one, I will be ecstatic. So, a few people have brought up some questions about HOW to visit your confused one. They’re ready to put on their thoughtful pants and visit, but they aren’t sure what to do once they get there. My friend Makenna Buffington lost her father to Alzheimer’s. She knows first hand how important it is to visit and through her experiences, has given me some great pointers on how to visit someone who is confused. How do you visit? What do you say? What do you not say? How do you connect? What about the awkwardness? Makenna and I have put together some helpful tips through our own personal visits with our family members, while it is aimed towards moderate to severe dementia, these words can serve as a guide for any stage:
UNDERSTAND THE SITUATION-I know this seems so basic, but the power of denial is STRONG. Before you walk into that room and try to fix things, you have to accept that you just can’t. Your loved one is confused and-depending on the cause-is not ever going to get “less confused”. They cannot process new information. They cannot get your jokes. They will not remember that time you *insert activity here* no matter how many times you try to make them. They are the same, but different. It is up to you to learn the new them in honor of the old.
DON’T TEST THEM-Don’t ask questions that will involve even the slightest deep thought process. “Do you remember my name? Do you know who I am? How many children do you have? Remember when I came to see you yesterday?” Honestly, chances are they’re not going to be able to answer those questions correctly which will (1) discourage you and (2) confuse and upset them. Something Makenna did with her daddy was tell him that he was the best father she ever had or that he was her favorite daddy. Of course, he didn’t think about the fact that he was the only dad she’d ever had, but it would help identify who she was to him: his child, his daughter – even if he couldn’t process the word or title for it, she could tell he could recall the feeling/relationship. And as an added bonus, his face would light up, and he’d say “Really?!”
DON’T BRING UP THE RECENT PAST- Let’s say you got a promotion at work and you told them about it last week. If you should bring it up in conversation again, and it’s news to them, don’t remind them that you’ve already told them. “Remember, I already told you that when I was here last Friday?” Instead, just go along with the “new” good news. “Yeah, I have been meaning to tell you, I got a promotion at work!” Furthermore, if it’s something not so recent and they suddenly didn’t know about it, just go with it. For example, Rachel’s husband broke his foot. Your confused loved one is surprised to hear Rachel is married. DO: “Yes! She is married to a nice man named Steve.” DON’T: “Yes! Don’t you remember? She got married at the beach last spring.”
ROLL WITH IT-A lot of times, a person’s long term memory will stay in tact longer than short term. Your grandmother may call you Bill (her brother’s name). Guess what? You’re Bill now. Don’t try to correct it. Correcting someone who cannot understand makes them feel embarrassed. Imagine if every time you said something you believed to be true, your daughter told you were totally wrong and was shocked that you didn’t know. Just go with it. Your dad thinks Reagan is still the president. Guess what? Reagan is the president and he’s the best/worst damn president there’s been in 50 years. There is a new, different reality going on in your loved one’s mind. While it’s difficult to grasp, just accept it and be glad you get to be a part of their world. *Insert The Little Mermaid song*
LISTEN TO THEM-You might think they don’t know what they’re talking about, but they’re still in there somewhere. They have needs that come out in unusual ways. They might rock back and forth because they aren’t able to verbalize needing to go to the bathroom. They might rub their head or guard their arm for pain they can’t make known. They might say their stomach hurts when they’re hungry. They also might tell you to get the dogs off the lawn because they need to turn the sprinklers on. Well, you’d better listen to them. Get up-and move those dogs. They will appreciate it. To have validation of your own reality is incredibly important. When you can experience their reality with them, they seem to feel less alone.
AVOID TECHNOLOGY-Don’t bring a phone or an ipad in when you see them. This may vary, but in Makenna’s case, her daddy would want to call people, which was dangerous territory for getting him confused and frustrated. Also, for older adults, technology is still pretty recent. Seeing these pictures move on this small rectangle sitting in their lap might overwhelm them. If you want to show them some pictures, try bringing a real photo album. They’ve been around for years and you probably stand a better chance at them actually enjoying the pictures and not being flabbergasted by the apparatus the pictures are in.
KEEP IT SIMPLE-On the subject of pictures, when you do show them, try to just stick to names and not titles. If they have trouble remembering what their kids’ names are, don’t throw a curveball at them in the form of a great grandchild. That will blow their mind. Instead, just call it family pictures. You could probably say what relation they are to you, but not to them. DO: “This is my daughter, Jessica. She is a school teacher.” DON’T: “This is your great grandson, Ben. This picture is from his teeball team. Remember him?”
SILENCE IS GOLDEN-If all else fails, don’t be freaked out by silence. The silence is only awkward for you. Not them. It takes the pressure off of them having to keep up with a conversation. Listen to the radio, go sit on a bench outside, listen to the birds, and hold their hand. Eat together. Paint their nails. Sit in the room and do sudoku on your own or read a book. Just being there is enough. It REALLY is. And usually, in the silence, you will discover a need. You will learn their cues and be able to get them something when they can’t even tell you they need it. I can 100% promise you that these days are limited and one day you’ll wish you had just one more silent afternoon holding their hand.
For two gals who have spent a lot of time with our confused loved ones, this all feels so simple, but it wasn’t always. It might be complicated at first, but the awkwardness will wear off. Read your loved ones’ cues. Notice what makes them happy and what doesn’t. Get it their world and learn their new way of thinking. Eventually, visiting with them will feel natural and will be worth it. We promise.