Summer is filled with family visits. A clever girlfriend termed these visits “oblivations” since for some, these visits don’t quite feel like a vacation, but require both the planning and money of one. This summer might be the time when you start to notice subtle changes in a loved one, or a time when you are planning to connect with a loved one who is living with dementia.
In terms of the practical visit, a few go-to strategies include:
- Arrive with a smile on your face, and calm in your soul. I found my parents fed off of my emotions. When I arrived rushed and task-oriented, the visits generally went very poorly. When I arrived with the mind-set of being in the moment, we had a great time. I realized that my parents would reflect the emotion I walked into the room with and would take time to reset before every visit.
- Be prepared to carry the conversation. Typically, short-term memory is one of the first things to falter. Asking about what they ate for breakfast, did yesterday, or even current events might be challenging for them to answer. I would arrive with pictures, a puzzle, and a few stories I could share. When my parents did talk, I would actively listen and join in the journey. I didn’t always do this, early on, I would correct the story or challenge the memory, and even use the word “remember”. While we grew up being able to discuss things and challenge ideas, doing this around my parents after the dementia was diagnosed turned into heated arguments. Even a soft suggestion to “remember” often made my mother anxious because she did not remember. When they spoke, I would stop talking and actively listen.
- Learn to hit the reset button. This applied to both my own attitude and my parents. Some days, getting the same question, or having my mom pick the same fight over and over were too much. When I started to loose my patience, I would excuse myself to visit the restroom, grab a soda, or return a phone call. The mini-breaks allowed me to reset my own emotions. Some days, I used the reset tactics to redirect my parents too. Often after I took a break, I would suggest we change location or start a new activity to help get the conversation off the topic that was creating anxiety for one or both of us.
My kids were helpful and willing foils for many of my visits. For about a year, my daughter was a trained wingman who would reset any issue just by being a 10-year old silly distraction. My son would quietly engage with my dad and I still giggle when I think about the time he unwittingly got my dad to return a 1.75 liter bottle of vodka just by asking “Pop-pop, you want that huge bottle of vodka?” My son had no idea I was already plotting on how to get it out of the shopping cart.
Eventually, for both parents, we got to a stage when I recognized it was too difficult for my kids to handle. I wanted my kids to understand what was happening and why it was important that I was there to help them. I knew my parents treasured every visit, but eventually I recognized that my parents in a moderate stage of dementia might be the only memories left of “nana” and “pop-pop” my kids would retain. Thankfully, my husband and I have shared many stories of good times with my parents, and they have gotten to hear my siblings and I endlessly revisit some of the classic family tales.
We all have a different journey and I hope some of these tips will help you. Suggested.