It’s Alzheimer’s and Caregiving Month. Grief Coach Barri Leiner Grant Has 10 Tips to Help You Connect With Someone Living With Memory Loss
My dad is an award-winning Madman. A cognitive impairment diagnosis that led to Alzheimer’s makes brainstorming beautiful ideas with him a little bit different these days. From visit to visit, there is never assurance that my brilliant Dad may know my name, his own, or what he had for lunch—just moments earlier. We are never certain just how his memory may show up or show out on any given day.
I have made a conscious decision and concerted effort to meet him and his memory exactly where we find it. Of course, this is not easy. We miss his wise counsel. “Never sign a contract without showing me first,” he’d say. His spot-on trend reports were epic, and he always had the latest music blasting in his VW Beetle adorned with custom “Grampsy” plates. The snappy future we envisioned for this father of four and grandfather of five is no longer our reality. Or his.
So, sure, I can grieve the man who is standing right before me or love what is left. Choosing the latter has allowed for more joy and laughs amidst the heartache of this disease. Knowing how to show up for the Dad he is today has been a learning curve.
Here are 10 tips I hope will help you as well as friends, family and caretakers:
#1: Please drop “You remember” from the conversation.
When sharing a piece of the past or reflecting on your day-to-day schedules, don’t presume that if they tried a little harder or you prodded them, they might recall the name of your favorite doctor or an old family friend. Assume they do not. “I saw Mrs. Katz today, our old neighbor from New Jersey, when you lived on Hubbard Avenue. It was great running into her, and she asked all about you and sends her best.” Share the news in this new way. He still loves to hear it.
#2: Tell them the story of their life.
Their brilliance lives on. My father worked on ads for the first breast cancer awareness campaigns and drugs. We tell him all about him. “Dad, it’s October 1st. What a thrill it has been all of these years to know that you worked on this important campaign. It is now a month long. Look at all of these companies supporting the effort.” Once I told him about a time that he supported a mom in our town who had lost her husband on 9/11. She could not be at both of her children’s soccer games, so he went to one for her. “Gosh, that sure sounds like me," he said, delighted at the tale. These stories spark some of his own reflections too.
#3: Ask them first.
Don’t just move in and take charge. Dignify their care, with an explanation and ask. “Dad, your nails look long, may I help cut them?” “We are going to return to your room and get you a fresh shirt, would that be ok?” “Would you like to wear blue or black?” They may need help with daily tasks, but before you go about any touch at all, let them know how you hope to help them.
#4: Offer choices.
Open-ended options can prove tricky. “I don’t know” is an answer you may hear often. Toss in some choices. Would you like grilled cheese or a turkey sandwich? Would you like to go on a walk or watch some golf? If they need help, remind them of their favorites. “You love a good cooking show, you are such a good cook. You would make us your signature French toast every weekend with extra vanilla”.
#5: Rewrite the game rules.
Get crafty in finding ways to gamify activities. Scrabble is not a game he can play any longer with traditional rules. We dump out the bag of letters and add the names of all of the people in the family. We spell them out. Tap at the letters. Say them. His too! It is a lovely way to play. We share photos and videos we collect of the people in his life that he cares about and share when we are together. Take the opportunity to narrate the details of the life you are living too.
#6: Play music.
Music is a balm and a salve and also sits somewhere scientifically in the brain that easily conjures memories. We play Dad his old favorites, from Bad, Bab Leroy Brown to Ray Charles greatest hits. He mouths along, sings, and you can see the knowing sparkle in his eyes. It brings him back. Try it with headphones, or make it a group sing-along. If there is a time of day, dusk for many with memory issues that causes irritation, use classical music or binaural beats to soothe. Music can be a great addition to bathing routines too.
#7: Bring along the babies (and pets!).
There is something innate that lights up and connects the memory to animal pals and children. It brings a sense of playfulness, wonder and soothing just by being in their company. Whenever we visit with Dad, we bring along one of his many “grand dogs.” He mimics the baby play of his newest grandchild. The sense of wonder and lack of inhibition he and the baby enjoy together, fosters great fun.
#8: Get crafty.
Keeping fine motor skills working as long as possible is good for the brain and muscles. It is also a beautiful and interactive activity to engage in together. Coloring books, paper and crayons, watercolors, clay, popsicle sticks and stickers. He engages in activities like this that he may not have otherwise.
#9: Keep reading.
We like combing through coffee table books with large pictures. Gardening books seem to mesmerize and interest him. It is fun to introduce new ideas like this on our visits together. The interactions are new and fresh and count on the present moment. Reading poetry or biographies that are written for early readers has proven to grab his attention, too. Choose topics you know they like and new ones as well.
#10: Find grace in the grief.
This anticipatory loss can feel heavy. Some days it takes all I have to show up. Know that your company and these interactions foster stimulation and connection. Many mark visits where a loved one “remembers” or not, as good or bad. When I part from my Dad and say “I love you”, I often get a “love you too” in response. While these can feel extra special as his memory fades, I am remembering to love what is left—whatever that may be.
Barri Leiner Grant is a certified grief coach and the Chief Grief Officer™ of The Memory Circle. Grant has studied with the leading names in the grief space, including grief certification and education with Claire Bidwell Smith, David Kessler and Dora Carpenter. Learn more at thememorycircle.com.