One of the most basic human needs is to feel loved, and Valentine's Day presents the perfect opportunity for caregivers to meet this need for someone with Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia. Even though individuals with memory loss no longer have the same cognitive awareness they once did, they are still able to experience and express the full range of emotions, including love. The following are some ways that caregivers, family and friends can make Valentine's Day extra special for someone with memory loss.
Use Music. Valentine's Day can be a bittersweet time especially for couples that are trying to cope with the changes Alzheimer's has made to their relationship. This holiday may bring back memories of past intimacy that no longer seems possible in the present. One way to feel this connection once again is to sing, play or dance with your loved one to their favorite love song. Research conducted by Petr Janata at the University of California, Davis, indicates that as Alzheimer's progresses, an area in the medial pre-frontal cortex remains intact when most other areas of the brain have deteriorated. When a song elicits a memory, Janata explains, "[The] music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head." Playing your loved one's favorite song from the past may help to build a bridge to communicate with them in a new or different way but be prepared as it may evoke bittersweet memories for you as well. You may want to look for local support groups where you can share your experiences and learn from others in similar situations.
Reminisce. Due to the changes in the brain caused by Alzheimer's, it is easier for people to recall events from the past than from the present. Therefore, a good way to connect with them is to talk about some special events from the past that they can still discuss and share their feelings about. When reminiscing with your loved one, it's good to have props such as a photo album or mementos like a wedding gown available. It's also important to keep in mind that instead of putting them on the spot by asking "don't you remember" you should say "tell me about the time when..." If they don't seem to be able to recall the people or places from the past try to avoid frustrating them and just move on by asking them what they would prefer to talk about, providing them with an empathetic listening ear.
Be Creative. Engage your loved one in making a Valentine for someone they care about. By simply gathering some paper, lace doilies and markers along with your simple step-by-step directions, you can give them the opportunity to do something meaningful by giving back to others. Most importantly, you are providing them with the chance to reach out to those they still love in a very powerful way. Just think about how special it would be for a friend or relative who is not able to visit regularly to receive a Valentine from the person with memory loss and know that they are still remembered and loved by them.
Stimulate Their Senses. Research also shows that familiar scents can trigger good memories as the nerve that senses smell resides very close to the areas of our brain that are associated with emotions and memory. By giving your loved one a bottle of their favorite perfume/cologne or a bouquet of flowers, you are giving them a sense of pleasure and well-being. In addition, depending on the person's preferences and their stage of memory loss, they might enjoy receiving a soft tactile item such as a silk pillow or a stuffed animal. And don't forget the chocolates! There are ongoing studies that indicate that chocolate contains compounds that may bring about a feeling of happiness, alertness and even increased blood flow to brain.
All of these suggestions are great ways to celebrate Valentine's Day, however, remember that your care and support is still the best gift you can give to a loved one with memory loss. Even if he or she may not be able to speak or express their love for you, know that on some level they may still be able to sense that you are there for them. It's important to know that your presence, gentle touch and soothing voice helps them know on this special holiday, and every other day, that they are still loved.
For more by Rita Altman, R.N., click here.
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