By Rev. John McFadden, M.Div., Valley VNA chaplain

Last week I discussed the only form of friendship that is complete, put forth by Aristotle; that is, the friendship of virtue, a friendship whose goal is to help one another live good and ethical lives. A virtuous friendship is centered on genuine commitment to help one another become better people. We wish good for our friends, we seek to guard and protect them, we commit to spending time with them, we share common choices and decisions centered in our efforts to live virtuous lives, and we share in our friends’ joys and sorrows. In a virtuous friendship, we are not free to abandon our friends who journey into dementia.

Thoughts on Visiting a Friend with Alzheimer’s Disease or Dementia:

How can I be a virtuous friend to someone who no longer remembers the story of our friendship, a friend or family member who may no longer even recognize me by name or face? Here is a short list of tips, both actionable items and thoughts for further contemplation.

1. Dementia does not reduce our capacity to love, or our need to give that love expression in caring for others. Too often we regard elders as objects of pity; we assume that they can only be the recipients of care from others. Focus on ability rather than limitation.

2. Give our friends permission to enter into the world of confusion and memory loss. We should not greet them (often in an overly loud voice) with a string of questions. “Do you know who I am? What day is it? What did you have for breakfast?” Consciously or not, we are attempting to pull them back from memory loss and orient them to the cognitive universe they formerly inhabited. But in such efforts, we usually succeed only in creating anxiety and agitation.

3. To share in a virtuous friendship with someone experiencing dementia, we need to learn to be present to them emotionally in ways that bring them comfort, joy, and freedom from anxiety. Will your friend know who you are? Perhaps not, at least by name. But this does not mean that your friend does not know you as one who cares, and who brings comfort and pleasure.

4. Learn the practice of being in the present moment with your friend. Conversation may flit from topic to topic rapidly. The greatest joy of conversation with a dear friend lies not in the topics discussed, but in the emotional connection formed in the process. If wordfinding is a problem, rather than completing his sentence for him, it is more helpful to touch his arm softly and encourage him to take his time.

5. Because you have shared a common story with your friend, perhaps for many years, you know important things about your friend that he may no longer know about himself. Take a walk together and appreciate the goodness of the created order. Look through books of photographs or family albums. Do not engage in a game of twenty questions. Rather, ask: “What do you think she is doing?” Creativity and imagination can flourish within dementia.

6. There may be days where your friend does not receive you gladly, and your presence appears to cause agitation rather than pleasure. It likely has nothing to do with you; perhaps something happened earlier in the day that has left your friend in a distressed state. Accept this, and try another day.

7. Within the very real losses brought by dementia, those things that form the core of our personhood abide. You friend may occasionally deliver a “zinger” that takes you by surprise, and forces you to challenge the cultural assumption that your friend is now an “empty shell.” You will find yourself laughing with more abandon than you are accustomed to, because your friend’s joy is so deep and infectious. Your friend has much to give you and to teach you, especially the critical teaching that we are most fully alive when we slow down to live joyously in the present moment.

To learn more about our chaplaincy at Valley VNA, or to inquire about in-home care or assisted living for people experiencing Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia, please call (920) 727-5555. We offer a wide range of services and support for both seniors in need of care and their caregivers.