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Tips for Visiting Loved Ones with Memory Loss This Holiday Season

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The holidays are an important time to reconnect with friends and family, especially for people with Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia.

At Sunrise Senior Living, we care for thousands of such residents, whose memories of past holidays are often sparked by the seasonal decorations and activities that fill the communities. These holiday memories may cause residents to miss their family and friends, which makes it even more important to visit them and spend time together.

Understandably, visits with loved ones who have memory loss can be stressful and intimidating. Some friends and family members fear that their loved one won't remember them, worry about saying the wrong thing, or simply wonder how they will relate to a person who seems so different from the one they knew.

Below are some tips to help prepare for the visit and make it more meaningful for everyone involved.

Live in the Moment

Don't focus on whether the person with memory loss will remember you or remember that you were there. Focus instead on being "in the moment" and connecting with them while you are visiting. I've worked with hundreds of individuals with memory loss over the years and they seldom remember my name. However, when I return, they almost always respond with a smile, a nod of recognition or even a hug indicating that I am someone they know. Just because they may not remember you like they once did, the visit will make them feel loved and keep their spirits high.

Travel Back in Time Together

As you may have discovered, your loved one with memory loss can have great recall for events that occurred many years ago. Those trips down memory lane are important to them and can provide them with joy. For visitors, having a conversation about past events can take extra patience, especially when you hear the same story over and over again. Keep the conversation going and send it in different directions with new questions. For example, if your loved one is telling a story about how they used to help their mother cook dinner, ask for more insights about their mother, such as, "What was she like?" or, "What else did your mother teach you?" Simply saying "tell me more about that" will help them feel validated and help them know that you're truly listening.

Avoid asking about more recent events, as trying to recall recent memories can be very stressful to someone with memory loss.

Engage in the Familiar

Bring something with you or keep something on hand in their apartment that you both enjoy doing together. It might be sharing their favorite candy, drinking their favorite tea or looking through family photo albums. Enjoying these familiar activities will restore feelings of comfort and security in your loved one. Involving them in this activity will also help to restore their sense of identity.

One woman I know always brings a selection of scarves and jewelry when visiting her mother. She says her mother always enjoyed coordinating accessories and likes to select her favorite items. She also brings some fashion catalogues and asks for her mother's advice on purchases.

Listen with Empathy

Focus on sincere listening -- whether you're hearing a story for the first time or the tenth. While your loved one is speaking, don't allow yourself to be distracted with busy work, such as tidying up their room. Remember to make good eye contact, positioning yourself at or below their eye level. Looking up to your loved one brings them a feeling of dignity and respect. Those with memory loss may not remember as much as they used to, but they are acutely aware when someone is engaged in a genuine conversation with them.

Give a Pleasant Farewell

Sometimes those with memory loss become upset or anxious when visitors announce that they are departing. Avoid leaving them standing alone at the door; instead, connect them first with another person. It could be a friend or a staff person, but make sure it is someone with whom they feel comfortable. This connection will help them feel secure and make it less likely that they will search for you after you leave.

With nearly 6 million Americans suffering from Alzheimer's disease, too many families are touched by these difficult issues. If your loved one is in a professional care setting, don't be afraid to ask for the staff's help in making each visit successful. They can help you brainstorm ways to better connect with your loved one and can ensure that trusted people are available when it's time to leave.

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