Helping a Family Member with Alzheimer’s Disease

With Alzheimer’s disease affecting 5.2 million Americans over 65, there’s a good chance you interact with someone who’s dealing with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Full-time Alzheimer’s caregivers frequently adapt to read the signals they convey, but visitors don’t always have that insight.

If you visit someone with Alzheimer’s there are some things you can do to make your time meaningful.

Your friend or family member might not communicate the way they once did, so one of the best things to remember is that being patient is essential. Keep the tone of your voice even and steady, and take your lead from them.

Because people with Alzheimer’s forget things, they might think today is 50 years ago. You know it’s not 1960, but for them, it might really seem that way. What should you say?

There’s really no right or wrong way to respond at first, but take your cues from them. “See how someone responds to a gentle reminder,” says Dr. Steven Arnold of the Massachusetts General Hospital Memory Disorders Unit.

If you notice gentle reminders cause anxiety, it’s counterproductive, so best to stop, says Arnold. “You want to encourage them to think for themselves, but don’t push it until it upsets them or everything will start to fall apart,” he says. If just being together is the goal, you don’t need to push for factual correctness.

They might ask you the same question 10 times, and insist you haven’t visited them in months even if you come every day. But they also might remember with crystal clarity, the funny family adventure to the Grand Canyon and can regale you with a story. Music might bring them to a pleasant memory or they might be happy for everyone to sing along to a favorite tune.

Sometimes a short visit is best. That can be especially tough if you have come a long way or if you haven’t seen them for a while. But long visits can be tiring.

In the early stages of Alzheimer’s, people generally enjoy social interactions, so getting them out of the house or making frequent visits will help keep their brains active, says Arnold. Take them out for lunch, for a walk, to the library—whatever they might enjoy. “There’s nothing more stimulating to the brain than engaging with other people,” he says, so keeping up visits is really a huge benefit.

Luckily, says Arnold, the prevalence of Alzheimer’s has also made it more acceptable to talk about the symptoms of the disease. Older adults and their families tend to cut each other more slack and won’t call attention to errors or repeated questions, so encourage your family member to continue going to a social group or go with them if they are particularly hesitant.

If you are unsure what to do, this brochure from the Alzheimer’s Association gives you tips for how to plan a day.

If someone is in advanced stages of the disease, they might not recognize you and that can make them fearful or agitated. Before you go, check in with the family caregiver to see what is soothing, and constantly gauge how the visit is progressing. See if you can offer comfort of any kind. Your relative might not like being touched, but holding a soft blanket is often appreciated. Listening to music is another way to interact without talking. To limit competing distractions, don’t try to hold a conversation over the music, just listen. And some find that communicating thorough art also helps.

Visiting a relative or friend with Alzheimer’s is also a good time to take stock of how they are doing. Some people live alone or with family caregivers who themselves have health issues. Checking in gives you a chance to assess if they are taking their medications properly, if they are able to get around their living space safely (no cords on the floor, paper bags on the stove, slippery magazines, blocked doorways, or loose bath mats). Are they keeping up with personal hygiene and do they have enough groceries and fresh food to eat?

Throughout every stage of Alzheimer’s visits are appreciated, but they may not always go as planned. Being open, flexible, and caring will help everyone.

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Tagged with: alzheimers, caregiving

8 thoughts on “Helping a Family Member with Alzheimer’s Disease

  1. Pam Wooldridge
    November 15, 2016 at 11:39 pm

    Going thru this now with a family member. What I read in this article was helpful. There is so much to learn, so much to pass on and so much to guess right or wrong.

  2. Eileen
    November 17, 2016 at 11:38 pm

    If possible look into your local Office of the Aging for your loved one to attend or adult day care. If a family member or trusted friend asks if you need help, say Yes! Take good care of yourself. Stay healthy. Prayer and meditation helps. Ih, and remember that you’re not alone.

  3. Susan Moore
    November 20, 2016 at 11:37 pm

    I am a female. I am 56 years old, and i am going through Memory loss. Sometimes, my family thinks, that I am making this up, but I am not. I am under doctors Care. i try my best to remember things, but sometimes I still get confused. I would like to get any advice, that I can get, Thank you.

  4. joyce Rarick
    November 20, 2016 at 11:38 pm

    Very good, have dealt with a mother , Aunt and now sister and still need help coping. Thanks! All yo put on paper is so true. I do a lot of music and it helps. I push sometimes, trying to help, not pushing things helps. I have found the adult coloring book are very calming for us both. Both of us are in our 70’s, I, 4 years older is one of the things that bothers me the most. Thanks again!

  5. Kathy
    November 21, 2016 at 11:37 pm

    My husband is 61 has had it since 2009 that we know of I take care of him no one knows how badly I need help but I don’t like to ask everyone has their own lives I hate this disease my husband is only a shell of the man he use to be

  6. Deborah
    November 27, 2016 at 11:35 pm

    God bless everyone because I am going threw it with my spouse. He is 65 yrs old had it about 2011. God give me strength everyday to deal with this and when I get down & sad I pray just make me stronger. I pray for the people that are caregiver and the person have this Awful disease.

  7. Sarah adkins
    November 27, 2016 at 11:36 pm

    How do you cope withe the crying stage.moderate to severe stage mother has this disease and it is a beast…

  8. Dawn M Miracle
    November 30, 2016 at 11:35 pm

    This is the first time being on here and I’m so looking for answers, Guidance and help…. Here is my situation. 6 years ago my NOW 59 year old Mother was diagnosed with Dementia which now has moved on to Alzheimers. MY step Father who was helping me take care of her now too has this disease. I recently took them to their appointment and the Doctor warned me that before too long I need to be looking into placement for them both. Im not ready for that. I also have my Father who is ill. mentally he is ok but Physically not ok. He barely can walk. I have my hands full with these 3. Plus I work Full time and have Grandkids that I take care of. I hear that there is a program to where I could get paid for taking care of my parents. Which is about to be a full time around the clock sort of thing. Im lost and do not know where to start. Any information you can give me would be helpful. I really dont know what to do! For the first time in my life I feel hopeless. My e-mail address is Any Guidance at all is helpful. Meals on wheels? anything that could help me. At this point they still are safe enough to be home but not much longer atleast not alone.

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