Alzheimer’s Association offers tips for reunion visits with older relatives

Staff Reports /

PITTSBURG, Kan. — A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, with many people preparing to see older relatives for the first time in months as public health restrictions begin to ease, the Alzheimer’s Association is offering tips for reunion visits with family members with dementia.

"With the upcoming Easter holiday, along with the two recent federal guideline announcements — one easing restrictions for nursing home visits and the other giving the green light to certain in-person activities for fully-vaccinated individuals — many families will soon be visiting older relatives they haven't seen in months or even an entire year,” Juliette Bradley, Kansas state director of communications for the Alzheimer's Association, said in an email.

“For families with a loved one with Alzheimer's/dementia, these initial visits could pose some challenges — whether the loved one is living in their own home or a long-term care community,” Bradley said. “For instance, the person with dementia may not recognize someone they haven't seen in a while, especially children who likely have grown and changed in the past year. Likewise, the person with the disease may have gone through their own changes with regards to cognitive and physical decline.”

The Alzheimer's Association — Heart of America Chapter is offering the following tips:

Plan and Prepare

  • First and foremost, consult the latest CDC guidelines for mask-wearing, social distancing, and appropriate in-person activities and physical contact for fully-vaccinated individuals.
  • Find out ahead of time — from the primary caregiver in the home or the staff at the long-term care community — how the person with the disease is doing physically and cognitively so you are prepared for potential changes in appearance and behavior prior to the visit.
  • Ask the caregiver (or the community staff) about when is a good time for a visit and recommendations on how long to plan on staying.
  • Ask the caregiver (or the community staff) if you could bring a small gift or favorite food item for the person with the disease (PWD).
  • Instead of having the whole family go for the first visit, have one or two go so as to not overwhelm the PWD.
  • Sensory cues are helpful if you haven’t seen the PWD in a while. Perhaps wear a perfume that they might recognize as your familiar smell or a recognizable piece of clothing and/or bring along an item with a special memory.

At the Visit

  • When you see the PWD, say their name and also introduce yourself. Do not assume they will know who you are right away. See how they react and then respond accordingly.
  • Do not ask them: “Do you remember me?”
  • Do not be surprised if they fail to recognize you at first.
  • If you are wearing a mask, perhaps bring along a photo of yourself without a mask on to help them recognize you.
  • In fact, bring a few photos to share with them — of the two of you together, of past family gatherings — though avoid photos with too many faces as that might be confusing for them.
  • Do not assume they will know about COVID-19 and why you have been unable to visit. But do not dwell on the pandemic; instead bridge to a more positive topic of conversation.
  • When talking with the PWD, accept their reality — whether that is today or 20 years ago. Follow their lead.

Easy Ways to Make the Conversation go more Smoothly

  • Be a good listener.
  • Be patient. Even if they repeat the same questions and statements.
  • Avoid correcting them.
  • Refrain from asking questions, rather make statements and share thoughts.
  • Use short sentences and speak slowly but don’t speak to them using childish, cutesy phrases.
  • Pay attention to your tone of voice.
  • Be supportive and encourage the person to continue to express themselves even if it is hard to follow what they are saying or it is taking a long time.

Pay Attention to Body Language

  • Keep your cell phone in your purse or pocket, so you are not tempted to check it during the visit.
  • Be present and enjoy just being with them.
  • Smile (even if wearing a mask!)
  • Your mood affects their mood. Stay calm and positive.
  • Be comfortable in the silence – do not feel the need to keep talking.
  • Observe how the visit is going and how they are doing, if you sense any agitation, consider not staying as long as you had planned.

For more information, please consult the Alzheimer's Association 24/7 help line at 800-272-3900.