How Dementia Affects Friendships (and What You Can About It)
Memory loss can be one of the first symptoms a person experiences with Alzheimer’s, and those living with Lewy body dementia may also become easily confused. These varied symptoms can make maintaining relationships more difficult, but friendships are no less important for people with dementia than for the rest of us. Maintaining relationships, however, especially among friends who are not pressured to continue involvement because of a new sense of duty over a person with dementia, can take work. This guide discusses how caregivers can help by educating willing visitors who want to be helpful but simply don’t know how to make a visit tolerable, let alone, meaningful.
The Alzheimer’s Association emphasizes the importance of relationships when living with the condition and how Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia can affect the ability of the person with the disease to interact socially.
1. Communicate to the visitor, before the visit, about how important validating the person with dementia is. Validating means that you don’t argue with the person who has the disease. Instead, educate the visitor. Let them know that the person whom they are visiting lives is in a reality that is as true to him and the visitor is to her. This is why repeatedly correcting someone who has dementia will only cause aggravation. It doesn’t matter if the person with dementia says the visiting nurse, whom you know is female, is really a man. Simply say, “Really? Tell me about him,” and sit and listen. Keep the need to correct to yourself.
2. Suggest that old friends look at photos from their history together or ask her to bring along an appropriate memento. One caveat: warn the visitor to never say, “Do you remember?” This is automatic for many old friends, and there are cases where perhaps the person with dementia does remember. But maybe not. It’s far better to let the person with the disease lead the way. If the visitor can offer stimulation of memories and the person with the disease starts to talk, again the visitor can say, “tell me about it.” Everyone likes to be listened to, and people with dementia are no different.
3. People who develop cognitive disease should not be treated as one might a child. Acknowledge the visitor's struggle and thank her for her patience, but stress that the friendship needs to be carried on as peers.
4. Remind visitors to introduce themselves. Let the visitor know that rather than assume that the person with dementia remembers her name, she should walk into the room and say, “Hi Dan! It’s Marie.” Add a big smile that goes to the eyes and use eye contact to communicate friendliness. This helps the person place the visitor without embarrassment.
5. Emphasize the value of the visit. In later stages people with dementia may no longer remember their friends, but they still need a loyal few. Those who are willing to visit can be told how to communicate through touch, listening to music together, or watching an old movie. Their presence still counts even though conversation may be limited.
You, as the caregiver, will have to make the decisions about which visits are helpful and which visits are upsetting. If the person is peripheral to your loved one’s life, perhaps it’s time to let the relationship go. If the person is family, you may want to work harder at helping them learn how to maintain connections. Advise people who want to be helpful to go to one of the excellent Alzheimer’s/dementia sites such as the Alzheimer’s Association, the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America and disease specific sites such as the Lewy Body Dementia Association for more information.