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Marguerite Manteau-Rao Headshot

Making Alzheimer's Moms Happy With Just a One-Minute Call a Day

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This story is for the 2.3 million long-distance caregivers who have a loved one with Alzheimer's.

Being a long-distance caregiver is hard, especially when a loved one's mind can no longer dwell on the memory of prior times together, or the anticipation of a future visit. One can easily feel helpless and overcome with grief, and guilt, and frustration.

I would like to share one small thing I have discovered with my mother, that's made a huge difference in how I feel about living so far from her.

My mother resides 5,000 miles away -- and she is in the late stage of Alzheimer's. My contacts with her are mostly in the form of short, daily phone calls. At first, I wondered, what's the point? A few minutes can't possibly make a difference. And then, one day, I had to go on a long vacation without easy access to the phone. I did not call my mother for three weeks. When I returned, I learned from my brother that my mother had been out of sorts during my absence. After a few days of resuming my calls, her agitation subsided, and she was back to her normal self. Since then, I have observed the same phenomenon over and over again. My daily calls pay off big in my mother's heart.

More (time at once) is not necessarily more. Rather, it is the frequency, predictability, and quality of the connection that matter most:

Make that daily call
Better to have daily contact, even if very short and on the phone, than to spend a whole day with your loved one and then not have any interaction for three months. I have found that establishing a connection usually carries over the whole day. By the next day, the effect has dissipated, and it is time to recharge the person's heart with some more reassurance and love.

Call at the same time
People with Alzheimer's have a keen internal clock, and routine is extremely important. That routine includes your daily long-distance call. The more consistent you can be in terms of the timing of your call, the better. I time my calls at 8:30 every morning, just in time to catch my mother before dinner in France where she lives.

Be fully present when you call
The words almost do not matter, but your authentic presence does. Before making the call, free your mind from all "your stuff" and fill up your heart with loving kindness, readying yourself to be with your loved one. I visualize my mother's face and I smile before I pick up the phone. Sit down while you talk, and be all to your conversation, nothing else. Treat each call as a brand new call, no matter how repetitive it may seem from one day to the next.

Pack your talk with emotional goodies
Touch upon your loved one's emotional needs all at once. Stick to safe topics that don't test memory and preserve self-esteem. "What is the weather like where you are?" "How is your health?" "How are you feeling?" Keep the conversation simple. Bring in good news. I usually talk about my daughter and how well she is doing in college. End with an affirmation of your love and a reassurance that you will reconnect the next day. "I love you lots, mom." When she reciprocates, tell her how good it makes you feel to hear those words from her.

Don't get hung up on reality
I have learned to let my imagination run wild, and say anything that leaves a positive impression in my mother's heart. She will not remember the exact content, but she will remember the emotion. That I love her, and care for her, and am a constant in her life. That there are still things for her to look forward to. That she can still treat me to lunch, even though it's been years... "When are you coming?" I have my response ready, "I am coming next week." "How long will you be staying?" she always asks. And each time, I answer, "One week". That brings her so much happiness.

Such a small thing, and it means so much to her! I can do this, every day.

For more by Marguerite Manteau-Rao, click here.

For more on caregiving, click here.

For more on Alzheimer's, click here.