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How to Build a Meaningful Connection With a Loved One Who Has Dementia

Deb Hipp
By Deb HippAugust 17, 2018

As dementia progresses, memory loss will no doubt change the connection that you have with a parent – but that doesn’t mean you still can’t have a meaningful connection with your senior loved one.

Learn more about how to build a meaningful connection with a loved one who has dementia and how to maintain that connection throughout the progression of the disease.

Building a Meaningful Connection With a Loved One Who Has Dementia

About a year before Nancy Kriseman’s mother Doris died, the two sat outside in the garden at her mom’s skilled nursing residence. By that time, Alzheimer’s disease had diminished most of Doris’ cognitive abilities, along with skills such as mobility and speech. Their time together wasn’t without meaning, though.

Doris, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at age 71, had always loved going for walks. Years earlier, the daughter and mother often strolled to a nearby pond, where they enjoyed sighting butterflies alighting on flowers and dragonflies hovering above the water. Sometimes, the women enjoyed picnics at local parks.

By now, Doris could no longer pack a picnic lunch, but her love of fresh air and greenery remained intact. Kriseman would have loved to engage with her mom as she once did, laughing and talking, even dancing with her to Judy Garland and Tony Bennett songs. Instead, that day, she and her mom ate outdoors from a picnic basket that Kriseman brought along. Kriseman still sang to her mom and reminisced about those singers with Doris, who could still respond by listening.

In the garden, where the breeze touched her skin and the sun warmed her face, Doris couldn’t express her appreciation of the moment vocally. But she could still sense her daughter’s love.

How a Lack of Understanding Keeps Visitors Away

Family members and friends often put off visiting a parent or senior loved one with dementia because they don’t know what to do or say, says Kriseman, author of “Meaningful Connections: Positive Ways to Be Together When a Loved One Has Dementia.” Kriseman is also a geriatric clinical social worker and owner of Geriatric Consulting Services in Atlanta, Georgia.

Many people lump everyone with dementia into one catch-all category, Kriseman says. However, that wrongful assumption prevents understanding how much the person who has dementia can or cannot comprehend.

“You need to have a good understanding of what the person is able to do or not do,” says Kriseman. Can your parent still read a newspaper or poem? Is your senior loved having difficulty sitting still or jumbling words? Once you understand your loved one’s abilities, you can start planning visits for a more meaningful connection.

Kriseman’s mother moved through many different abilities levels in 17 years following her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Along the way, Kriseman adjusted their visits accordingly.

Even when Doris was unable to respond, such as during their garden time, Kriseman counted on connecting with her mother’s spirit. “It filled me with joy to know that I could still reach her heart,” says Kriseman.

Patience and Planning Are Key With a Loved One Who Has Dementia

It’s natural to want to hold on to the way you’ve always communicated with a parent, spouse or senior loved one who now has dementia, says Kriseman. However, you must meet them where they are, cognitively, to still connect.

“I’ve seen spouses almost give up. They tell me they don’t know how to relate to the person anymore because the cognitive abilities have changed so much,” says Kriseman. “What I try to do is help them find more effective and positive ways to communicate.”

It’s important to plan and structure your visits as much as possible with a person-centered care approach. In other words, plan visits around that person’s past or present hobbies, interests or work, says Kriseman. “If you go with nothing, then you just sit there,” she says.

For example, if your parent adores animals, try planning visits around interaction with a dog or cat. If your senior loved one enjoyed reading but is no longer able, try reading to him, even if he doesn’t completely comprehend. Or, if the person was devoted to his or her career, bring items related to that occupation or skill. Kriseman recommends creating theme-related collections placed in a box to grab easily on your way out for visits.

One of Kriseman’s clients loved baseball, specifically the Detroit Tigers. So, his son put together a “baseball box” with a ball and glove, baseball cards, a Tigers cap and pennant and other memorabilia. Even though the man, who had dementia, couldn’t remember team players’ names, his face lit up whenever he held the baseball in his hand or inhaled the scent of the leather glove. Sometimes his son brought video recordings of old Tigers games they could watch together, along with foil-wrapped hot dogs and peanuts.

“Connection doesn’t always have to be with words,” says Kriseman.

Ways to Build a Meaningful Connection

There are many things you can do to build and maintain a meaningful connection with a parent or senior loved one with dementia.

Kriseman’s tips for positive visits include:

  1. Ask another person to join you. Invite a family member or another resident to visit with you and your loved one. This takes the focus off just the two of you. It can also foster new relationships.
  2. Keep crafts age-appropriate. Although your senior loved one’s cognitive abilities are impaired, he or she is still an adult. Avoid things like children’s coloring books, opting for adult coloring books instead.
  3. Notice how your mood impacts visits. Avoid visiting when you’re ambivalent, irritable or tired of being there.
  4. Tap into different senses. Stimulating hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch can lift your parent or senior loved one’s spirit and reinforce the connection.
  5. Visit when your loved one is at her best. If she is in an assisted living or skilled nursing community, ask staff to recommend the best time to visit.

“One of the greatest challenges care partners face is learning to let go of longing for how things used to be,” Kriseman writes in “Meaningful Connections.” “It can be upsetting to realize that you can no longer have the same type of conversation or do the same things together.

“Admitting that your loved one has changed takes courage. You have to embrace these changes, so you can find meaningful ways to spend time together.”

In what other ways have you built and maintained a meaningful connection with a parent or senior loved one with dementia? We’d like to hear your stories and suggestions in the comments below.

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Deb Hipp

Deb Hipp

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