How to Comfort Someone with Alzheimer’s

September 24, 2019 | Blog | Reading Time 7:00 Minutes

American society is aging. Population Reference Bureau’s Population Bulletin projects that the number of Americans over age 65 will double between 2018 and 2060. Soon, the number of older adults will equal or exceed the number of youth and children.

The aging of America creates new challenges for the healthcare system. Conditions such as dementia, which disproportionately affect older people, are creating new challenges for those living with the condition, as well as for their friends and families. For those friends and family members, knowing how to comfort someone with dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, can greatly relieve the stress and discomfort that both parties typically experience with the disease.

As our understanding of dementia grows, our ability to reach people with the condition also improves. While a dementia diagnosis can be frightening, it doesn’t have to be as fearsome or as isolating as it once was. People with dementia can still live fulfilling lives and a knowledgeable and engaged support group, coupled with the chance to participate in appropriate enrichment programs, can aid people in the pursuit of exceptional lives.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia and it’s likely that you already know one or more people living with the condition. To help you comfort a friend or family member with Alzheimer’s, we put together a list of dos and don’ts that will help you spend quality time with your relative and help them lead the life they want.

10 Dos and Don’ts of Alzheimer’s Support

1. Approach from the front. Many people with Alzheimer’s startle easily. Some become seriously frightened if tapped on the shoulder or spoken to from behind. Their fear can trigger the “fight or flight” response, causing unwanted conflict. When approaching from the front, try to assume a supportive posture and stand at arm’s length. This can give your friend or relative time to assess your intentions before responding. If the person stays seated, crouch down to their level instead of bending forward, which can feel like a controlling posture.

2. Remain cheerful. Supporting someone with Alzheimer’s can feel discouraging at first. You want to provide comfort to someone important in your life, but they may be confused or even agitated. To comfort your friend or relative, it’s best not to show your own sadness, frustration or grief when visiting. Talk about positive topics. Keep an upbeat tone of voice. Smile. Remember that feelings remain even after memories and processing skills have gone. Your relative can likely pick up on your attitude even if he or she doesn’t understand all the words you are saying. While your grief is real and therapy can prove helpful, you don’t want to burden someone with Alzheimer’s with the confusion of your own emotions.

3. Follow the “Yes, And Rule.” Sometimes, your friend or family member may do or say something outlandish. When that happens, don’t correct them, just go with it. In an appearance on a podcast about communicating with people with dementia, Jordan Gross, founder of They Forget, We Remember at Northwestern University, says he follows the “Yes, And Rule” of improv. Using that rule, you agree with whatever just happened and build on it. If your friend thinks you are a movie star from their childhood, for example, you can offer an autograph. If the person thinks a long-deceased relative is still alive, you can say, “Tell me more about that person.” It’s not necessary to correct misstatements of fact.

4. Bring an appropriate book or game. Many times, people with dementia enjoy reading simple books, looking at pictures and playing board games with other people. You may need to modify the rules a bit, but doing the activity together can provide deep satisfaction for both people. Many people with Alzheimer’s seem more content and exhibit fewer symptoms of depression or agitation after engaging in an appropriate, stimulating activity with someone kind and gentle.

5. Review a life book together. Helping a relative, such as a parent, with Alzheimer’s can be especially hard when the parent starts to forget long-cherished memories. You can help them hold on to those memories and the positive feelings that accompany them by creating a life book. Include pictures of special occasions such as weddings, birthday parties and holidays. Write simple captions. You can even employ scrapbooking techniques to make the book more colorful and vibrant. Looking at a life book together can feel deeply satisfying to a person living with dementia as well as to you. Often, the pictures help trigger the memories, which give both people a good feeling.

6. Remember to show respect with your words and expressions. People with dementia are not children, though they may exhibit childlike behavior at times. They are adults who were strong and vibrant people in the past, leading teams, managing households and engaging in complex relationships. Even if they no longer possess the intellectual powers to do those things, people with dementia do not want to feel they are overlooked or less capable. Treat them accordingly. For example, in the early or middle stages of the condition, some people will still get gentle humor and light ribbing, just be careful not to come across as condescending or sarcastic. Refrain from side conversations that your friend might find offensive. You could be surprised by what they overhear and understand. Show your relative or friend the same respect now that you have always shown them, maybe even more. They are, after all, facing a challenging disease with courage.

7. You don’t have to stay for a long time. Many people with Alzheimer’s have short attention spans, so frequent visits are often more appreciated than long ones. Just 15-20 minutes together can leave your friend or family member with the warm feeling that they’ve been remembered and that they are loved. When you leave, make your departure uneventful to avoid any potential negative responses to an announcement that you’re leaving, focusing instead on the fact that you’ll be back soon.

8. Listen for the message your friend or relative is communicating. Jennifer Bute, an acclaimed physician now living with dementia herself, says the experience is like being locked inside a house and you’ve lost the key to the front door. If you wanted to visit a person like that, you wouldn’t give up just because the front door was locked. You’d try the backdoor, check the windows or even get a ladder. Using creative means, you can often uncover what your friend or relative is trying to say and communicate back to them. Their behavior can seem odd, but it may convey something important. For instance, if he asks for a band-aid over and over, perhaps they are feeling unwell. If they say they want to go home, it may just mean they feel out of sorts.

9. Help your friend or family member maintain their social and spiritual connections. People with dementia can feel starved for social and spiritual connections. After a dementia diagnosis, a person who once had a vibrant social life can suddenly find themselves all alone. For instance, a man who once loved participating in activities at his house or worship may no longer feel comfortable going there. Educate your friends, family and faith leaders about how to communicate with people with dementia. Show them there is nothing to fear from visiting someone with the disease and equip them with the skills to hold a productive visit. A faith leader, for example, might read aloud from a sacred text or sing a well-loved song to someone with Alzheimer’s. An old friend can bring photos from past experiences together.

10. Give children guidance about how to respond to a grandparent or other relative with dementia. Children may not understand what is happening to an older friend or relative with dementia. They can feel distressed or frightened, particularly if the person becomes agitated. Some children may ask why their family member can no longer remember them or why the person they love feels sad. Check out resources such as The Dragon Story and which can help young children grasp what’s happening. Involving children and teens can be meaningful to both the young person and the person living with dementia. Children and teens can bake cookies, go for walks, read books, look at photos, color pictures, watch TV, plant flowers or eat lunch with their older friend or relative. A young person’s energy and warmth may be just what the doctor ordered.

Help Your Relative or Friend Lead a Joyful Life

While dementia is a growing public health concern and a hard diagnosis to receive, it doesn’t have to be isolating. People with dementia can lead meaningful and joy-filled lives with proper support from their friends and family. You and your relative can face the challenges of Alzheimer’s together.

At The Brielle, we provide a safe, supportive environment for those living with Alzheimer’s. Our memory care community offers professional care along with engaging activities and individualized attention to help people with Alzheimer’s live the life they deserve. Contact us to learn more about our memory care options.