Guidelines For Visiting People With Dementia

Whether you’re a friend or family member, visiting a loved one with dementia can be overwhelming. Although dementia results in a range of symptoms that are often experienced across most patients, each individual is unique in terms of their onset, everyday behaviors, response to treatment, and more.

We’re all unique beings and this is also apparent among those with dementia. Perhaps your loved one is unpredictable and based on their actions, you may be fearful of your next visit. If you can relate to these anxious feelings, you’re most certainly not alone. Many others share this same fear, as they watch their loved ones deteriorate.

When visiting an individual who has been diagnosed with dementia, it’s important to be aware of certain factors. How will they likely behave? How do you react to their abnormal behaviors? Is there anything you can do to soothe them? These are all important questions to ask yourself.

Dementia Patients Still Feel Emotion — Even After Their Memory Fades

When individuals suffer from dementia, they can appear as though they are no longer ‘present’ in their own bodies. For some caregivers, they feel as though their efforts go unnoticed and that individuals with dementia no longer feel as they once did. Although they may not remember events, the level of care they receive does still affect them emotionally.

Based on a 2014 study, published in Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology, it was found that caregivers can influence the emotional state of Alzheimer’s patients. Although they may not remember a recent visit or feeling of neglect, these instances have been shown to cause lasting effects in terms of how they feel.

When individuals with Alzheimer’s were shown clips from both sad and happy movies, these patients experienced sustained emotional states — both sadness and happiness, despite not remembering the movies. Researchers concluded that the emotional state of Alzheimer’s patients is most certainly functioning.

Shockingly, within this study, the less patients remembered about a film, the longer their associated sadness lasted. Even though feelings of sadness tended to last slightly longer than happiness, both of these emotions outlasted the memories that sparked the associated feelings to begin with.

Meaning, the way in which an individual is treated, can have a profound influence on their emotional life. Your actions towards an individual with Alzheimer’s matters — not just because they’re a human being who deserves respect, but also because it will impact their overall quality of life.

Top Tips When Visiting a Loved One with Dementia

Before we cover the basics, it’s important to stress the fact that visiting with your loved one is important. Sure, it may be painful and some days will be better than others, but your support is needed. Unfortunately, for those who are unsure of what will happen, they often avoid visitations all together.

This can lead to guilt and regret — so how do you better these visits and reduce anxious feelings? As mentioned above, tending to your loved one’s emotional state can influence their feelings and in turn, potentially impact their behavior. Whenever you’re visiting someone with dementia, remember the following top tips.

  1. Visit Frequently

You not only need to focus on how you behave and react during visits, but also how often you make the effort to come see your loved one. Understandably, not everyone is able to care for dementia patients at home. More often than not, loved ones believe that a home environment is no longer safe and that care facility would best meet their immediate and long-term needs.

If your loved one is in a care facility, they may not experience the level of social interaction they require to enhance their quality of life. When you visit frequently, you’ll be able to intervene, ensuring that your loved one is mentally and socially stimulated. Research has shown that when mentally stimulated, individuals with dementia are able to improve scores on both thinking and memory tests. 

  1. Play Music

 The impact that music has had on dementia patients cannot be ignored. In fact, music is now being used in care facilities across the globe as a form of potential therapy. The documentary Alive Inside captures this connection — offering highly moving and inspiring scenes. Music has the ability to ‘awaken’ dementia patients, offering them a moment of hope and clarity.

The next time you visit, put together a playlist of meaningful songs so that you can experience the power of music. When heard by dementia patients, it appears as though memorable songs have the ability to reach damaged portions of the brain that other forms of communication simply cannot. This can offer them a sense of short-term identity, even among those with advanced dementia. 

  1. Bring Them Familiar Foods

 Of course, whenever bringing foods into a care facility, you need to notify care workers. Although your loved one may love a certain food, others within the residence may have an allergic reaction. They may also advise against certain foods in terms of choking hazards — so, it’s always best to play it safe.

When bringing your loved one familiar foods, you can connect with them, reminding them of what that food means to you and your family. Perhaps your mom taught you how to cook, which is something that you can talk to her about. Also, not only will familiar foods help you to potentially connect, but they’re an important source of nourishment. 

  1. Dance

As long as your loved one is mobile, encouraging them to remain active is important. As you know, the brain is a complex organ, which is influenced by blood and oxygen flow. Not only does dancing improve one’s physical health, but may also enhance mental health. While dancing, you’re exercising as your brain focuses on music, rhythm and timing.

 On top of all these benefits, there are social and emotional components to dance — it is essentially the whole package. In fact, within a number of studies, dancing has been shown to reduce problematic behaviors and increase enjoyment for both residents and staff members.

  1. Laugh and Joke

As discussed, a patient’s emotional state can affect the course of their condition and influence their overall well-being. Of course, laughter is associated with pleasant feelings which evoke positive emotions. From improved immunological and endocrinological support to increased pain tolerance, laughter is known as a universal medicine.

When laughing, various neural circuits are activated, including — cognitive areas, such as the frontal lobe; movement areas, such as the supplemental motor area; and emotional areas, such as the nucleus accumbens. When laughing as a family, positive emotions can help dementia patients better cope with their illness, decrease anxiety, and improve overall well-being.

Yes, it’s true that laughter and smiling decrease among dementia patients over time, however, when patients are relieved from mental or physical strain, they always smile. Although social forms of laughter may be lost, the more basic form is preserved — helping them associate laughter and smiling with pleasant feelings. 

  1. Listen

Ask yourself, do you truly listen to your loved one who is living with dementia? Do you overact to their actions, displaying negativity when frustrated? If so, you may need to adjust your approach, really listening to what your loved one wants and needs. The moment you begin to listen, you will begin to learn.   

  1. Use Gestures

 Communication is more than words, speech and language, so don’t forget about non-verbal communication. From hand gestures to eye contact, body language to touch, you need to express yourself in a variety of ways. Something as simple as a warm, loving hug can speak volumes.

  1. Remain Calm

For anyone who has cared for a loved one with dementia in the past, you know that certain situations can become tense and heated. Although you may feel frustrated, try to remember how your loved one feels — scared, confused and alone. Believe it or not, individuals with moderate-stage dementia often mimic the emotional state of their carers.

Whenever you’re around your loved one, be conscious of your actions and emotions. If you are feeling frustrated, remove yourself from the room. Do not even try and argue with them, as their judgement is no longer fully intact and what may seem like a stressful situation, can quickly unravel into a tense situation.

The very best thing you can do is what you’re currently doing right now — educate yourself. As you become more aware, you will be better equipped to deal with high-stress situations. The overall goal is to make your loved one’s life as comfortable as possible, so be sure to visit them on a regular basis, remembering some of the tips above.


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Krista Hillis has a B.A.Sc degree, specializing in neuroscience and psychology. She is actively involved in the mental health and caregiving community, aiming to help others. Krista is also passionate about nutrition and the ways in which lifestyle choices affect and influence the human brain.

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