Make a holiday visit to a loved one with dementia a priority, Kitchener care home worker says

It's important to visit people with dementia over the holidays because interactions with people, while tiring, are also great stimulation, says Kait Carnegie of Highview Residences in Kitchener.

Even if they don't remember you, they'll know a friendly face has said hello, says Kait Carnegie

Sharon Robertson, left, with her mom Margaret Otsuki at Highview Residences in Kitchener. Robertson has written books for her mother of the family's history and notes to explain why her mom might not always remember the past or get confused because of her dementia. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

The holidays are a busy time of year for people and it can be hard to make time for visits to friends and loved ones.

When it comes to a relative with dementia, you may think it's OK not to stop by, reasoning that you don't want to overwhelm them or confuse them. Maybe you think they won't remember the visit anyway, so why bother?

Kait Carnegie has heard those excuses. She's the activation co-ordinator at Highview Residences in Kitchener, which specializes in care of people who have dementia.

While the holidays can be an exhausting time for residents at the long-term care facility, she says the interactions from visits with family and friends are important.

"It's good for them to have that stimulation," she said. "It still keeps them engaged in the family, so keeps them engaged with what's going on."

They may also remember that you've been to visit, but even if they don't, she says there's a sense that a familiar or friendly face has stopped to say hello.

"They feel comfortable with you. They feel safe with you," Carnegie said.

Kait Carnegie is the activation co-ordinator at Highview Residences in Kitchener. She says while people with dementia might feel tired after a holiday visit from family or friends, it's important for them to have that stimulation and they may remember you came by to see them. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

'She knows that she doesn't know'

Sharon Robertson has seen the positive impact a visit can have. Her 94-year-old mother, Margaret Otsuki, lives at Highview Residences.

Sitting in her mother's room, Robertson reflects on visits with her mother. The closet door is covered with photos of Otsuki's family and sticky notes telling her who the people are and what relation they are to her.

"Sometimes she gets really anxious," Robertson says. "She knows that she doesn't know."

On visits, Robertson likes to go through the photo albums with her mom.

"Visits are engagements with the past and also with the present. Mom lives in the present," Robertson said. "The way we get her to interact with the past is that we have a lot of photo albums and pictures."

Sharon Robertson has written out why her mom might be confused and says when she or staff at Highview Residences go over this list with her mom, it calms her and helps her understand. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

If her mom isn't having a good day, they go through books Robertson has made to explain her family, where people are now, why she's living at Highview and not in her home in Montreal where she lived more than 50 years ago. The book explains that she has dementia and that's why she's confused.

"I'll give her this page that tells her history: where she's lived, what years, and then that seems to calm her down," Robertson says.

Robertson likes to visit on Thursdays, which is craft day and is a favourite activity for her mother. Sometimes, they'll work on a project together.

Robertson says she likes to bring in essential oils and rub her mom's hands, so her mom can smell something nice and also have the benefit of touching her daughter's hands.

Sometimes she'll bring in food that's a treat - something small like some French fries. Or she'll bring in flowers for a pop of colour in the room.

Sharon Robertson says even if her mom doesn't always remember that it's the holidays, she likes to decorate or offer fun holiday treats, like putting a wreath on the door to her room or bringing in a holiday snack or even a nice holiday sweater or socks. Small items like this can really brighten the day of a person with dementia. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Go for a meal or write a letter if you can't visit

Carnegie says sometimes people feel awkward talking to a person with dementia because they're confused. She suggests bringing children or grandchildren along for a visit because even if the person doesn't know who the children are, you can talk about how well the children are growing, their interests. And Carnegie says let the children be children — don't make them sit quietly.

"Grandchildren lift up the spirits of seniors everywhere," Carnegie said. "They're an easy topic to talk about."

Many long-term care facilities will also host holiday parties, or will let people come share a meal with a resident, Carnegie says. This is a great way to spend some time with someone where maybe you don't have to talk as much.

"That's huge because that's what families did, they always shared meals together," she said.

Carnegie also recommends getting the person outside if you can and if they're able to go. This can be a trip to a coffee shop or even a drive in the country or around to see the holiday lights.

If you don't live in the same area as the person in your life with dementia, she recommends sending a card or letter.

"Writing letters is huge," she said. "That's what they always did. They didn't have phones to text, they didn't have computers the email — often writing letters was their main source of communication with anyone who was afar."

Whatever you decide to do, Carnegie says it won't be a wasted trip, even if you think the visit didn't go as smoothly as you would have liked.

"Don't take your visits for granted because you just never know when they could decline even more. Anything's possible with this disease," she said. "Even if you don't think you made an impact on your loved one coming for a visit, you did."

Thursday is craft day at Highview Residences. Sharon Robertson and her mom, Margaret Otsuki, work on a snowflake craft together. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)


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