7 Pitfalls to Avoid When Visiting Someone with Dementia

Carol Bradley Bursack | Jan 5, 2016

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Whether you’re caring for someone with dementia or visiting them from time to time you’ll want to do your best to make them feel good.   No one will ever hit the right note every time but knowledge  helps. With that in mind, here are a few pitfalls that you can avoid in order to help make your time with a friend or loved one who has dementia less stressful.

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Don’t say do you remember?

I know. You’re thinking that people with dementia are living in the past. They like to reminisce. However, using the phrase “do you remember” puts the person on the spot. They are frustrated enough about their memory issues and they may not remember that incident. Instead, let them lead. Say, “tell me about when you were a child” or “tell me about you and mom.” Then go where they take you.

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Don’t Talk Around or Over Them

If there is a third person in the room you may be tempted to talk with that person because it’s easier. This leaves the person with dementia sitting there watching the conversation and not understanding most of it. Then, while you may go home and feel like you did your duty and paid a visit, what happened was you visited the wrong person. Include that person in the conversation or go elsewhere to visit with the third party.

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Take Your Cues from Body Language

It’s never easy to know if you are staying too long, or if you are making the visit so short that the person feels that what you did was just a duty. Again, you won’t always get this right. But tune into your loved one’s body language. If they seem alert, try staying longer even if you just hold hands and watch TV together. Conversely, if the person you are visiting is nodding off, it may be time to take your leave.

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Don’t Take It Personally

People with dementia often have lost their social filters, so they may say blunt, even insulting things to people who care about them. This can cut to the bone, but we have to learn not to take what they say personally. They may not remember exactly who you are or they may be uncomfortable or simply frustrated. If this person lashes out verbally, understand that it’s not about you. It’s about the disease.

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Don’t Assume You Are Not Being Understood

Most of us have heard that people in a coma can sometimes hear our voices so we need to watch what we say. The same is true when someone has dementia. If this person seems “out of it,” don’t just talk about him to others as if he can’t hear or understand you. You do not know for certain what is heard or understood. Simply treat the person like you would anyone else. Be kind and don’t say hurtful things in his presence.

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Don’t Say You Understand

Don’t say that you understand when you don’t. I’ve heard people say that they understand how the person with dementia feels when there is no way that they can. If the person wants to talk about losses, you can listen and say “that’s got to be so hard.” You can offer to help if there is something that you can do. But don’t say “I understand.”

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Don’t Diminish Them

Speaking to an adult in a sing song voice that you’d use with an infant is not acceptable. If you are helping your loved one eat or even helping with toileting, which is something a guest would rarely attend to but caregivers often do, respect for who they are is essential. They deserve as much dignity and privacy as possible.

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The Takeaway

Dignity above all. If you keep that in mind you really can’t go wrong. Put yourself in this person’s place. How would you like to be treated if you had lost your ability to find the right words to communicate, make sense of what others say, swallow whole food and use the toilet? Before you visit, give this serious thought. Your instincts should guide you with the rest.