Christmas is a time for getting together. Families and relatives will be coming from near and far and churches will be visiting older people in care homes. Yet people often shy away from visiting people with dementia because the normal ground rules don't apply, and they don't know how to communicate effectively. But although they don't know it, they bring with them an invisible gift that can be life-changing.
'What's the point in visiting her, now she doesn't remember who I am?' a daughter was asked by her mother's friend. Heather says one of the most hurtful things about caring for her mother with dementia was seeing how her friends dropped away, one by one. 'They didn't see how much their visits meant to her,' Heather recalled sadly.
They may not have realised it, but when they visited they were helping her mother retain her sense of identity, even though she'd forgotten theirs.
The most important aspect of dementia care is helping to hold the person's identity together, said Professor Tom Kitwood of Bradford University, and 'Identity remains when others help to hold it in place.' (Dementia Reconsidered, OUP 2010, p 81).
Author Christine Bryden, after being diagnosed with Young Onset Dementia at the age of 46, realised the importance of personal connections and visiting. In a talk at an international conference she appealed:
''If I enjoy your visit, why must I remember it? Why must I remember who you are? Is this just to satisfy your OWN need for identity?
So please allow Christ to work through you. Let me live in the present. If I forget a pleasant memory, it does not mean that it was not important for me."
Tips for visiting and communicating well are given in a new little book, 'Visiting the Person with Dementia', with contributions from Dr Jennifer Bute, FRCGP, psychogeriatric nurse Janet Jacob, and author and cognitive behavioural therapist Louise morse.
Advice ranges from the practical to the spiritual. For example, you should always greet people living with dementia from the front, smiling widely as though seeing them has made your day. Never tap a person with dementia on the shoulder from the back which could startle them and cause a violent reaction. Always sit so you are at eye level, and slightly to one side so you aren't overpowering.
Know as much as you can about the person before you visit so you can choose topics to talk about that are relevant to them. Be prepared to sit quietly, but also be comfortable gently 'burbling' about different things until the person responds to something that catches their attention.
One of our volunteer's most effective visits was simply supporting a resident's hand as she quoted familiar scripture verses to her, smiling and keeping eye contact. Vera had lost the ability to speak but her face was aglow as the Holy Spirit ministered to her. Spiritual support is key for Christians with dementia, and it's good to know that 'deep calls to deep' (psalm 42:7). God knows each person intimately (psalm 139) and the Holy Spirit will minister this truth.
Visiting a Person with Dementia is available from Pilgrims' Friend Society. See www.pilgrimsfriend.org.uk for more information.