Many people are reluctant to visit elders, whether they are in their homes or a facility, mainly because they wonder what they’ll talk about. While this reluctance is more of a worry if the elder has memory problems from dementia, it’s often a problem even when memory isn’t an issue.
Since elders by definition have many decades of life to their credit, they will likely enjoy looking back on the past. This is especially important when people have Alzheimer’s disease, because their disease prevents them from forming new memories. Nearly everyone enjoys reminiscing to some degree. To help you kick off a nice visit with the elder you intend to spend time with try bringing some props. Physical reminders should help your visit go more smoothly.
- Photo albums: Most people with Alzheimer’s retain their ability to recognize images longer than they can make sense of language. That’s one reason photo albums with pictures from the elder’s past can be so effective when it comes to either entertaining or conversing with an elderly loved one who has dementia. People without dementia will enjoy the photos just as much, of course, so don’t consider this an option only if you are visiting someone with memory problems.
- DVDs of old movies: You can find DVDs of movies made as far back as the 1950s if you search. These movies may or may not have been viewed by the elder, but the clothing, the language and especially the vehicles in the movie should bring back memories.
- CDs of big band or spiritual music: Music is universal in its ability to bring back memories. My dad loved big band music, so I built a library of CDs with music from the big band era. Often, when there really wasn’t much that could reach through his surgically induced dementia, the music from his youth soothed his soul.
- Awards and medals: World War II veterans often enjoy seeing their war medals. A high school or college diploma or degree can bring smiles, as well. So if you can find your elder’s awards, degrees or medals, bring them along to spur memories.
- Small models of machinery or old cars: Locally, we had a group that enjoyed bringing models of John Deere tractors to elderly farmers in nursing homes. There are other makes of tractors that may be more popular in other parts of the country. If your loved one owned a tractor or any kind of machinery and you can find a model, you may be able to stimulate some smiles or even some stories. Old models of cars can have the same effect.
- Quilts and yarn: For women who quilted, knitted or sewed, fabric from the past can have the same effect that a model of a vehicle can for a man.
- If the person worked with wood or ceramics, try to find an example of the work he or she created and bring that along. Talk about the fine workmanship of the piece and you’ll likely get a response.
These ideas are just a start. You know your elder. What hobby does/did he or she enjoy? If the person played a musical instrument, bring one along if possible. If the person read the Bible regularly, brush up on passages you think he or she would love to hear read aloud and then when you visit offer to do so. If you play an instrument that is portable, you may want to bring that. Most people like to be entertained. Just don’t make yourself the center of attention.
Many seniors, with or without dementia, can tell you interesting stories. All you need to do is stimulate a memory and open your mind long enough to listen. You may find that while you think you are doing the elder a favor by visiting, the elder has expanded your base of knowledge of the past. If not, you will still have brought some pleasure to someone who may no longer have much to look forward to. That, in itself, should make you feel good.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.