Alzheimer’s disease can devastate a person’s ability to socialize, but being among other people is incredibly important for our loved ones with Alzheimer’s or related dementia. Social interaction is healthy, like exercise for the brain, and can slow symptoms including deteriorating memory. In fact, staying socially engaged with friends and family has been shown to boost self-esteem, which for people with dementia means better eating habits, more exercise, and better sleep.
Think of interaction as a challenge. Your loved one may understandably want to be alone because thinking has become difficult, especially in middle stages of dementia, but getting out and carrying on conversations forces the brain to be active. Someone with dementia might spend time daydreaming, inside their own head, and this internal place can become too comfortable. Being able to transition from inside to outside the mind, from daydreaming to speaking with another person, is an important skill to maintain. Socialization achieves this as well.
Human interaction also grounds a person in the present. Someone with dementia is prone to losing track of time and setting, perhaps not even knowing what’s happening in front of their eyes. Social contact can maintain a sense of reality.
And humans are social creatures! Being with each other to talk and share experiences nurtures the soul. Feeling a sense of belonging is, of course, better than feeling alone.
Alzheimer’s affects someone socially because along with memory loss and other problems, increased anxiety is a common symptom of dementia. Someone who feels anxious is less inclined to be social, and may actually dread interacting with other people. It is important that you, as caretaker, consider the feelings of your loved one as you also encourage socialization. Make being with people as easy as possible.
This is how researchers at Queen’s University, in Canada, put it in their study: “Many AD (Alzheimer’s disease) patients sense that their cognitive impairment isolates them from other people leading to anxiety, depression, societal withdrawal, and decreased self-confidence. Manipulating the social environment around AD patients may help them regain a sense of self-worth and a better attitude towards life. This may improve eating and exercise habits and social interaction, with may result in improved AD prognosis.”
Interacting with people who have dementia can be hardest for friends and family who know them best, and knew what they were like before the disease began showing symptoms. These people often don’t know what to say or how to interact with a loved one who might not even recognize them anymore. To learn more about communicating with people with dementia, or how to help prepare others for socializing with your loved one, see the suggestions below and visit our page on communication.
Like so much else in caregiving, understanding and planning are key. What follows are tips for making socializing easier and beneficial for your loved one.
Living as normally as possible, for as long as possible, is important for people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Maintain a social calendar, things like lunch dates or game nights, until your loved one is no longer able.
The Right Time
Plan social visits for the time when your loved one feels best, not when it’s best for the visitor. A common phenomenon for people in mid- to late-stage Alzheimer’s is “sundowning,” or late-day confusion. If your loved one experiences sundowning, don’t have visitors late in the day.
The Right Place
Busy settings full of noise and people are often stressful for someone with dementia. Visits should occur in environments that are calm, quieter, and uncluttered.
Make sure that friends and family have appropriate expectations. Explain the nature of the disease and what changes to expect. Prepare an activity that can be shared during a visit, like singing a song (more on the benefits of music therapy), looking through old photo albums, or taking a walk. This can give your loved one something to focus on. Show your loved one pictures of whomever’s coming to visit, to prepare.
Know How to Interact
Let visitors know they should “go with the flow,” and follow these guidelines:
– Speak softly.
– Talk slowly and avoid quick phrases.
– Be prepared for emotional outbursts, and don’t respond angrily.
– Maintain eye contact
– Identify the person with dementia by name, to let them know when they’re being addressed.
– Prepare to repeat what’s said.
– Use common words or phrases.
– Use props or point to objects, if needed.
– Be prepared for forgetfulness and confusion.
– Look interested in what is being said.
Say Thank You
Remind visitors they remain important and vital to your loved one, even (especially!) as the symptoms of dementia make interactions more difficult. Taking time to visit is always appreciated.
Consider adult day care, where you can take your loved one for a few hours daily, to leave with professionals and fellow seniors for quality time socializing. Keep in mind that unlike residential memory care, which is specifically for people with dementia, adult day care staff may not necessarily be trained to care for someone with Alzheimer’s. Many adult day cares do cater to the needs and abilities of people with dementia (they may be called Alzheimer’s day treatment centers) but be sure to ask about this, and further inquire how socialization is handled among the adults there. Day care may bill in half-day increments. Additionally, transportation services like a bus or shuttle may be available to get to and from the center.
The benefits of finding a good adult day care can be huge for both you and your loved one, as a nice change of pace and as a way to get your loved one interacting with others in a beneficial way. For more on adult day care, including how to pay, click here.
At a certain point, probably in the late stages of the disease, you may need to let the professionals take care of your loved one. Memory care provides full-time supervision and medical care, and staff are specially trained to work on life skills like socialization with people who have Alzheimer’s or other dementia. A memory care facility will feed, bathe, and generally care for your loved one, but should also provide activities throughout the day to keep mind and body as sharp as possible. For more on memory care, including how to pay, click here.