When you visit your loved one with Alzheimer’s during this Covid pandemic, do you find yourself wondering what you can do to make the meet-up less melancholy?
I certainly do. Sundays are difficult. That’s the day my brother and I go visit Dad, who has Alzheimer’s, and Mom, who has dementia. We recently made the tough decision to move them into a blended community of assisted living and memory care residents. We turned to this option after a wandering incident.
So now when we visit, I have all the guilty feelings. Did we make the right decision? Do they recognize us? Are we just random nice people who stop by for a chat? Because of the global Covid-19 pandemic, we are limited to visiting through a window. It’s frustrating not being able to hug them or help them with chores around their living space.
When they arrive on their side of the window, questions they can’t answer pop into my head. Like, are they showering and changing into clean clothes? Because it seems to me, they are wearing the same outfits I saw them in last Sunday. But maybe it’s just coincidence.
Mom looks nice. Her nails are freshly manicured in a cotton candy pink color. Her hair has been professionally styled a day or so ago and still holds its shape. I am happy she has so quickly become a client of the on-site salon. She smiles and seems genuinely happy to see us.
Dad looks like he needs a manicure and a shave. Time for him to sign up for a salon visit. (Mobile barbershops are not yet legal where we live.) He smiles too, but it’s more of a grin-and-bear-it smile that tells me he is going along with the program, but is confused and maybe still a bit unsettled by the recent upheaval.
So as I hold back tears and try to make conversation with two people who have memory issues, I think about what I can do to make these emotionally stressful visits more enjoyable for all.
HERE ARE FIVE TIPS FOR VISITING SOMEONE WITH ALZHEIMER’S OR DEMENTIA.
Bring sandwiches, if allowed.
Before the pandemic, my brother and I would take the parents to church on Sundays with our spouses and kids. Afterward, we would caravan to Panera Bread for a family meal where we didn’t have to wait to be seated. It’s the kind of place where you can eat reasonably healthy food, and the kids can leave with a big cookie. That’s a win-win for us!
My brother Philip had the idea of carrying on the Sunday Panera Bread tradition. So now we use the phone app to order online before heading out to see Dad and Mom. Philip and I – and sometimes a grandkid or two – will gather at the memory care facility on patio benches outside. The benches are positioned six feet away from the window, behind a line of royal blue duct tape, which reminds us to keep our distance. My parents sit inside. We carefully pass the sandwiches through a window, which has been opened a few inches.
Sharing a simple meal together gives Mom and Dad a break from the dining room fare, and it gives us something to talk about.
How’s that sandwich, Dad? Did they put enough bacon on it this week?
Mom, we told them no tomato. Did they get it right?
It’s not the most stimulating conversation, but it does elicit responses. And at the end of the day, we want them to continue using language for as long as possible.
Tell some jokes.
On Father’s Day, Philip googles dad jokes and then proceeds to tell a few. He and I spend the next 10 minutes or so laughing. Mom joins in the laughter too at different points. But most of the jokes go over Dad’s head. He smiles and seems to enjoy seeing us having a good time.
It was a good effort, and it gave me an emotional release that didn’t involve crying. Depending on your loved one’s stage of Alzheimer’s, jokes may or may not be appropriate.
Hold a video call.
My Mom’s younger sister lives in another state and likes for us to call her on FaceTime or Zoom when we visit. She always has a happy childhood memory to share, letting my Mom join in with additional details as she is able. We prop the phone up against the window that is cracked open a few inches, and Mom gets a few minutes with her sister.
I know this is hard for my Aunt when some weeks Mom doesn’t even remember her name. But she wants to continue the video calls in hopes that when they see each other again in person, there will be some spark of recognition.
Sing familiar tunes or hymns.
One brilliant thing my Aunt does with Mom is sing. Sometimes they even harmonize!
I have adopted this technique with Dad. He was a Sam Cooke fan and one of his favorites was Wonderful World. So I pull it up on YouTube and play it for Dad.
He immediately smiles and starts drumming his fingers on his knee. Unfortunately, he no longer remembers the words. But I do feel like it brings him a few moments of happiness and think that maybe it triggers a nostalgic feeling.
Philip and I don’t always know the words to the songs Mom and her sister sing. We have talked about singing Amazing Grace or another hymn or tune we would all know (or used to know) during a future visit.
If we do decide to have an impromptu sing-a-long, we will be sure to wear our masks during this pandemic, because singing projects particles much further than simply speaking.
Play short videos of the grandkids.
Bringing all the grandkids would be too much commotion for the parents at this point. But we still want to show off our talented kids and brag a bit. So now we play them short video clips instead. There’s one of the five-year-old princess proudly testing out her new tap shoes. And another one of her big brothers going off the diving board. Then there’s my son, the singer, practicing for his college auditions.
You can always google cute kid videos or funny baby animal videos to find something that will bring a smile to your loved one’s face.
We tell them we love them and that we’ll be back next week, if not before. They seem bored with us by now and don’t seem to mind us leaving. That makes me sad, but I also like to think that our visit was a diversion in their day and gave them a chance to interact and engage with people who know them and love them.
Keep visiting your loved one(s), even though it’s hard.
What strategies do you use when visiting loved ones with Alzheimer’s or dementia? Please tell us in the comments section below. We’re all in this together!