Tips for Visiting a Person With Late-Stage Alzheimer's

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If a family member or friend is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, it helps to be prepared for what to expect as a loved one. Interacting with someone with late-stage dementia can be challenging, but there are several ways to make visits more meaningful and helpful.

Older man and women working on a puzzle together
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Use Touch

In the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, your loved one may need a lot of physical care. They may be unable to walk, be incontinent (urinary or fecal), or be unable to feed themselves.

Whether they are living with you in your house or in a nursing home, they will frequently be touched to assist with washing, dressing, eating, and mobility. Touch is important not only for functional reasons but to convey how you feel as a loved one. Receiving touch can convey gentleness and love rather than simply accomplishing the task at hand.

It is important to remember that touch can be therapeutic. As simple as this may seem, the person with dementia is more likely to respond if you are gentle rather than if your movements are brusque or abrupt.

Take time to sit and hold your loved one's hand, pat their shoulder, or gently brush their hair. They may not be able to demonstrate appreciation outright but may respond with a more relaxed posture and sense of calm.

Use Non-Verbal Communication

Because your loved one is non-responsive doesn't mean you have to be as well. Go ahead and talk with them, telling them about the latest adventures of their grandchildren or their favorite sports team.

While you’re doing so, also be mindful of what you’re conveying via your facial expressions and body posture. Non-verbal communication (how you say something) is just as important as verbal communication (what you say). Smile and make eye contact as much as possible.

What is important is not to withdraw, something that many caregivers do when faced with a non-responsive loved one. Laughter, eye gazing, body movements, and facial expressions can go a long way toward connecting with someone who might not seem outwardly responsive.

Go Outdoors

If you’re able and the weather is appropriate, bring your loved one outside for some fresh air. Being outside and getting a little sunshine and outdoor air can brighten anyone’s day, even someone with dementia. It may also help set a more pleasant mood for the visit overall.

A 2017 review of studies in the journal Dementia reported that people with dementia in residential facilities were typically less disruptive in spring and summer months when they had access to gardens than in winter when they were confided indoors.

Play Music

When visiting a loved one with dementia, play a favorite song while you are there. You can sing along if you choose and leave on the music after you depart.

Music therapy—most specifically the simple act of listening to music—has long been shown to reduce agitation and anxiety in people with late-stage dementia.

Music has the possibility of triggering memories and evoking responses, especially personally meaningful music. You might even consider some spiritual songs if your loved one is of a certain faith or simply music from an era that your loved one enjoyed.

Take Things in Stride

Before you go to visit your loved one with dementia, be prepared that they might have a very limited response to your presence. Don't take it personally or actively seek recognition (which can come off as aggressive or convey anxiety or disappointment).

Acceptance is key. Remember that dementia affects a person's ability to communicate, express emotion, or make connections between current experiences and past memories.

Take the opportunity to express your love without expecting anything back. It will not only make your visit less stressful but provide an overall greater sense of calm to the atmosphere.

If there is disruptive behavior, you are more likely to respond accordingly—neither responding rashly nor taking things personally—if you understand what dementia is and have reasonable expectations walking in.

6 Sources
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  4. Leggieri M, Thaut MH, Fornazzari L, et al. Music intervention approaches for Alzheimer’s disease: a review of the literature. Front Neurosci. 2019;13:132. doi:10.3389/fnins.2019.00132

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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.