Tomorrow we celebrate love – in all its forms. Not only between lovers, but also parents and children, siblings, friends, grandparents and grandchildren, even our pets. Expressing love is important, but it becomes even more important when someone develops dementia.
Without memory, our loved ones have no means of recalling the many ways we’ve shown them our love in the past. Imagine being surrounded by people who know you, but not being able to recall the details of your past interactions with them. When we love someone who has dementia, regularly expressing our love in words becomes just as important as expressing it in actions. Here are a few tips on how to do it more successfully.
Tell the story of your love. One of my dear friends is now living in an adult family home in the latter stages of dementia. When I visit, she has no idea who I am, even when I greet her and tell her my name. When I sit down beside her, she’s polite, as she is with everyone, but she has no idea why I’m there or what I may want.
I start by telling her that I’m her “dear friend Judy.” She brightens with interest. I take her hand and squeeze it; she politely squeezes my hand back. Then I tell her about our friendship – the fun things we’ve done together, something she helped me with, something I helped her with, a funny incident, a private joke. I detail for her the love we share. As I talk, she comes to life. Soon we’re clasping each other’s hands with both hands. I kiss her cheek and she reaches to give me a hug. We both have tears of joy in our eyes. I can see she’s hanging on my every word.
Each time I visit, we sit together and I tell her our stories. She doesn’t notice when I repeat myself or forget a name or pause for a moment to recall a detail. She is fully experiencing our love and friendship in the present, while I use my memory skills for both of us. I am expressing my love for her by reminiscing about our good times together.
Hugs and touch are very important. People need contact with others through relationships but also in physical contact. Children raised with less touching are more prone to violence. When we are touched, the part of our brain is activated that is linked to reward and compassion. Research at the University of Miami has shown that human touch lessens pain, improves pulmonary function, increases growth in infants, lowers blood glucose, even improves immune function. It doesn’t even have to be a hug. A gentle hand on the shoulder, squeeze of the arm, or holding hands can be just as beneficial, maybe more comforting.
Ask for a hug. When we first begin working with our clients, often they have been living home alone with family members living at a distance. They have had no one in their lives to hug or be hugged by for a long time. At first they might be standoffish, but in time they come to love and trust their caregivers. Sometimes their caregivers will ask them for a hug, rather than offering one, so they can experience the joy of giving. Giving someone a hug when they need one is so empowering for people who constantly need help from others.
When we love someone who has dementia, it’s important to show them our love every day, through our memories and touch.