Ways to Reach a Loved One Living with Alzheimer’s Disease

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By: Marie Marley, Ph D, KCH Volunteer

Marie Marley is a nationally-recognized expert in Alzheimer’s caregiving and a seasoned Kansas City Hospice volunteer who has visited many hospice patients with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Please consult your physician and/or the Alzheimer’s Association for proper diagnosis and medical advice.

Some people living with Alzheimer’s Disease may be difficult to reach, but they are usually still “in there,” and you can most often connect with them if you just know how. Several types of activities can be helpful for this purpose, including activities for people at the latest stages as well as those with a more recent onset. 

Music uses a different part of the brain from the part that’s being ravaged by the disease. Amazingly, people who don’t talk can often sing and even remember all the words of songs. 

If you want to use music to reach your loved one, be sure to use the kind of music they like. You can listen to music, sing to the person (no matter how well or badly you sing), or listen to music and both of you sing along. You can also play an instrument for your loved one (if you play one) or have a friend come and perform.  

I once regularly visited a lady who loved Elvis so much that one day when I was leaving, she said, “Don’t bother coming back if you don’t bring Elvis.” And this lady cracked me up when I gave her a photograph of Elvis. She proclaimed, “It looks just like him!”

On another occasion, I had a violinist appear at the nursing home of Ed, my life partner, wearing a tux. He played a special concert just for Ed in his room. Ed was ecstatic, and was delighted to pose with the violinist at the conclusion of the concert.

Ed, Marley’s life partner of 30 years, delightfully posing with the violinist who performed at his nursing home.

Art, too, uses a different part of the brain. And merely looking at art (such as in a picture book) is just as powerful as creating it. If you do want to be creative, you can color together, paint with watercolors, play with Play Doh, draw, or use any other art medium. 

Lester Potts, the father of the co-author of my second book, had been a sawmiller all his life and had never done anything artistic. When they began taking him to a daycare program, he was given watercolors and a brush. He actually became quite accomplished, and I loved one of his paintings of tulips so much that we put it on the cover of our book.

Stuffed Animals
Some experts say that “people with Alzheimer’s are adults and should be treated with dignity. They shouldn’t be given children’s toys.” But I say, “If toys give people pleasure (and they often do), why wouldn’t you give them to them?” 

Ed had been a lawyer and a university professor, and I was sure he’d be angry if I brought him a child’s toy, but I did it anyway. He just loved the stuffed animals I delivered, and he developed a rather large collection. He loved every single one I gave him more than the one before. He gave some of them names, and I made up little games to play with them. It was a wonderful, fun way to interact that was meaningful for both of us.

People living with Alzheimer’s often love dogs. One day I took my little Shih Tzu, Christina, to visit a lady living in a memory care facility. When I left, she looked me in the eyes and said, “This is my best day since I’ve lived here!” 

Dogs may also get people to talk even if they don’t otherwise talk at all. When I took another of my Shih Tzus, Peter, to visit a lady who hadn’t spoken for months, he licked her face, which made her smile. I said, “Gee. He doesn’t usually kiss people he doesn’t know.” She looked up and said clearly, “Dogs are very selective.”

People who have Alzheimer’s can be strongly drawn to children. You can have a well-behaved child visit your loved one, provided both the child and your loved one are comfortable with it. Ed and I were sitting in the lobby of his memory care facility one day when a little child began dancing around the room. Ed was mesmerized by her and completely ignored me! Then he got up, walked over to her parents, and said, “You have such a beautiful child!”

Another time, one of the nurses took her infant to work with her and carried her in to see a patient who was bedbound and hadn’t talked for the longest time. But when the lady saw the infant, she sat up in bed and said, “What a beautiful baby!”

Dolls can make wonderful companions. At nearly every facility I visit, there are at least one or two women carrying a doll around. They cradle them lovingly and often talk to them and even kiss them. It seems certain they believe their doll is a real baby. One lady was so attached to her doll that it was interfering with her activities. So, they had to get a “babysitter” for the doll!

Touch is very powerful and can have wonderful results. Touch your loved one often unless they show by some means that they don’t like it, and that rarely happens. You can hold their hand, rest your hand on their arm or shoulder, put your arm around them or give them a hug. I once visited a lady about whom the nurse told me hadn’t talked the entire nine months she’d lived there. But when I reached over and held her hand, she said, “Thank you. Thank you.” And that’s when I knew I had reached her, and I had made a difference.     

It’s important to experiment with the various activities above to see which ones may appeal to your loved one. If you find one they like, you can repeat it over and over. Each time will bring joy to them because for them it’s like the first time. Some people living with Alzheimer’s can’t be reached by any means, but if you try these activities, you may be able to connect in a way that’s meaningful, and sometimes even joyful, for both of you.

June is Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month, which is a time to take charge of your brain health and join the fight to raise awareness about Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. If you, or someone you know needs end-of-life care, please consider Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care as your care provider. Please call or visit our website for more information: 816.363.2600 or KCHospice.org.  

Marie Marley has been a volunteer patient visitor for Kansas City Hospice since 2019. In 2023 Ingram’s Magazine named her a Hero in Healthcare for her volunteer service. Marie is also the author of Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer’s and Joy. Visit her at ComeBackEarlyToday.com.

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