How to Handle Leaving a Loved One With Dementia After Visiting Them

How to Say Goodbye With Less Guilt and Tears

When it's time to leave after spending time visiting a loved one with dementia at a nursing home, it can be difficult.

Upset Woman/ LWA/Larry Williams Blend Images/ Getty Images. LWA / Larry Williams Blend Images / Getty Images

For example, have you ever witnessed or experienced this common scenario? Bill just spent the afternoon visiting his wife in a secure dementia unit three miles from his home. He is becoming tired and has decided it's time to go home for a nap, but dreads the scene that often occurs when he leaves Sarah. He gently gives her a hug and tells her he loves her and reminds her that he'll be back after dinner to sit with her again before bedtime.

Sarah, however, becomes upset and angry, claiming that he doesn't love her and begging him to take her with him. She clings to him and he hugs her again and then escapes her grasp with her chasing after him and crying some more. He leaves through the secure doors and behind him he hears the doors close and hears Sarah pounding on the doors and calling for him to come back. He wipes tears away from his eyes and exhales with a deep breath, knowing that this scene will replay again the next time he leaves.

Sarah has Alzheimer's disease, and although Bill loves her very much, he just can't take care of her at home anymore. He managed for a long time but it just became too much for him and his own health deteriorated. His doctor finally told him he had to do something different to meet both her needs and his as well.

What can Bill and the staff do to make leaving Sarah after visiting her less painful, both for her and for him? It depends on several factors, including which stage of Alzheimer's she is in as well as her personality. Try these 5 practical approaches:

Harness the Power of Distraction

Bill may need to ask for staff members to assist him by distracting Sarah when it's time for him to leave. The goal is not to trick her, but rather to interest Sarah in something else so that the parting process doesn't hurt her as much. She might become interested in lunchtime, playing the piano, or in the exercise class.

Rearrange the Schedule

Maybe Sarah needs to take an earlier nap and then Bill can slip away while she is sleeping. Or, perhaps Sarah would do better with a morning visit and Bill could go home when it's her lunchtime.

Use Technology

What if Sarah becomes more upset if she suddenly discovers that Bill has left when she was sleeping? You could try a brief audio or video recording of Bill saying that he had to run an errand and that he loves her and will return soon. She (or the staff members) could play that message for her to reassure her that he's coming back again.

Use Favorite Staff

Maybe there's one particular staff member that Sarah just loves and who is able to calm her and reassure her. Plan ahead with that person as to what time and which days work well for a visit. This is one of the many benefits of consistent staffing in dementia care.

Know Each Person

This is the most important approach for staff members who are working with Sarah. It's their privilege and obligation to learn to know her personality, her preferences, the things that trigger agitation, and what is comforting and encouraging for her. They can work together with Bill and ask him about her history, her job, her family, her talents and her joys—and use this knowledge to develop an individualized approach for her. And, when they find something that works well, staff need to share the success and make sure the approach that is helpful is communicated to others.

A Word From Verywell

It's normal to struggle with many emotions when caring for a loved one who's living with Alzheimer's or another type of dementia. One of the most common ones that people experience is guilt, especially when your loved one is distressed. Making the transition less difficult when you end a visit is one way to ease feelings of caregiver guilt and improve the quality of life for your loved one.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Esther Heerema, MSW
Esther Heerema, MSW, shares practical tips gained from working with hundreds of people whose lives are touched by Alzheimer's disease and other kinds of dementia.