It's tragic enough when older people lose memory and cognitive skills, but the personality changes of Alzheimer's disease can be devastating for loved ones, too. The eldercare profession is evolving to help people with this disease. But whether your parent or grandparent has adequate care at home, in assisted living or in skilled nursing, it's important to visit him or her.
Arrive just before mealtime. Whether you're eating with your loved one, helping him eat or just keeping him company, the rhythms and rituals of a meal are a good way to focus both of you in the moment.
Wash your hands. Cleanliness is always critical to health. Older people tend to be frail and easily susceptible to germs and viruses.
Check in with nurses, aides or spiritual advisers. Let them know you're there for a visit, and ask if you should be aware of any health or behavioral changes.
Cheerfully approach your loved one. Say hello in a way that can't be ignored. Introduce yourself if he appears confused about who you are. Don't take it personally if he can't identify you. For many people with Alzheimer's, a friendly, caring, vaguely familiar visitor is probably good enough.
Politely ask your loved one how she is. Her answer may be gracious, hostile, irrelevant or way too much information. Conversation matters more than content.
Share news and photos of family and friends. When someone is losing his memory and sense of identity, personal topics will resonate more deeply than current events or popular culture.
Talk about shared memories or your loved one's family history. A person with Alzheimer's is more likely to be in touch with her past than the present, and these subjects can be comforting. Old photos, familiar music and other meaningful items can be more powerful than words to someone losing her language skills.
When it's time to leave, say goodbye clearly, gently and firmly. Talk about why you're leaving, and about coming back next time. It's OK if you're not too specific. Say, for example, "I'll see you again as soon as I can." This is conversation of the moment for someone with a poor sense of time.
Revisit nurses or aides if you have concerns. This will help them care for your loved one, and reassure you about that care.
Wash your hands on the way out. Those germs and viruses can work both ways.