Making Memories While Visiting Friends and Family with Dementia
“I’m Losing My Mind”
When my mother began to lose her memory, she laughed about it. “Sometimes I feel like my brain is made of Swiss cheese,” she’d say, “and I keep putting my keys in one of the holes.”
When my father began to lose his memory, he denied it. “I didn’t forget to call the doctor. I decided not to go.” Everyone’s dementia is different.
When my best friend’s memory began to fail, he became confused, then sad, then depressed. My first clue was when he asked what day it was during a conversation.
He was a college professor who read the New York Times daily. He had always discussed the contents with discernment and vigor. But now, although he still read the paper with his morning coffee, he didn’t want to discuss it. He couldn’t remember what he had read.
The first time he failed to arrive for a regularly scheduled walk, he said, “I’m not doing so well today.” That became a common refrain. He used it when he forgot to pay a bill, double-paid others, made plans but didn’t turn up, stopped answering the phone, and eventually wouldn’t leave the house.
“I’m not doing well” was code for “I’m losing control of my life – I can’t trust my memory.” Finally, one day he broke down and cried, “I’m losing my mind.”
Visiting Someone with Dementia
Now I visit my friend in a care home. We look out the window at trees and a lake, a busy little neighborhood in the foreground.
He comments on an interesting bird, or asks where people are going in their boats. We hold hands. We look at pictures of our grandchildren. We play dominos. We laugh. Sometimes we sing. Last time I visited, we danced.
He was devastated to leave his home of 40 years, but he is settled now and content. His caregivers are cheerful, the food tasty, the home-like surroundings well lit and clean.
His daughter says he smiles when he hears that I will be visiting, and he tells me he enjoys my company. I savor the time we spend together and look forward to each visit. But it wasn’t always that way.
My first visit was only an hour long. I didn’t know how to talk with him, and I found my attempts embarrassing and frustrating.
Although he had greeted me warmly, he stared out the window as I attempted to make conversation. “Your friends at school send their love.” He stared at the lake. “And my kids do too.” He turned his head toward me.
“How many children do you have?” he asked.
“What are their names?” He looked back at the lake.
“It’s almost lunch time. Are you hungry?”
“No.” More staring out the window. Then silence. I tried again.
“How was your breakfast?”
“I don’t know.”
“My daughter sent this picture of her new baby.” He stared at the photo.
“How many children do you have?” he asked.
“What are their names?”
I left in tears.
Learning a New Reality
I had known my friend for 20 years, and I wanted to talk about our shared experiences, people we worked with, our families.
I soon realized, however, that he didn’t remember our trips to India, or that we had watched glaciers from the deck of a cruise ship. It wasn’t a reflection on me, although it felt like it.
These memories were no longer accessible to him. It was as if they had never happened. Perhaps this has been your experience too, when you visited a friend or loved one with memory loss.
They offer workshops, and their websites are filled with specific suggestions. I learned that we could still enjoy our time together, but I needed to meet him where he now lives – in the present moment.
These recommendations are adapted from Daily Caring, a website for caregivers:
- When you arrive, remind the person who you are.
- Make eye contact and sit at eye level.
- Keep your body language friendly and positive. Speak in a normal voice. Don’t rush conversation.
- Don’t say, “Don’t you remember?” or argue or point out errors.
- Be comfortable sitting together in silence.
- Validate feelings. Allow expressions of sadness, fear or anger.
- Be respectful. Treat the person as an adult, not a child.
- Bring an activity, a story to read out loud, a photo album, a simple game.
- Give hugs and gentle touches if the person enjoys them.
But the most meaningful insights came from my social worker daughter.
She says, “I find it rewarding to visit with the memory-impaired because although they might not remember me the moment I’ve walked out the door, I know I was able to bring happiness and comfort for the duration of my visit. I treat them with respect, use humor, and engage them from wherever they are capable. I like to think that joy sticks with them.”
My friend and I both enjoy our time together now. We walk in the garden and feel the breeze in our hair. We smell the flowers growing along the path. We even talk about experiences we shared that he doesn’t remember. I make little photo books, tell him stories, and give the memories back to him again:
“This is the cruise ship we went on to Alaska,” I say. “This is us, dressed up for dinner. These are the puffin birds we saw. Aren’t they funny looking?”
These ‘memories’ don’t last for long. They can be talked about for a short time, and enjoyed, but tomorrow they’ll be gone again. My friend and I live in the present now. No past. No future. But the time we spend together is still a treasure.
What experiences have you had visiting friends or family with memory loss? Do you have suggestions to share? Please join the conversation below.