By Theresa Pichelmeyer, EdD, RN, President & CEO of Valley VNA Senior Care

Many people experience the stigma and fear of a dementia diagnosis, either for themselves or a loved one. At Valley VNA, we care for our clients, residents, and families who are experiencing Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. One of our goals is to help families appreciate and embrace this time in the person’s life without fear, embarrassment, or uneasiness.

The fear and stigma associated with dementia is often tied to our culture, one that primarily defines relationships around usefulness or pleasure, like a series of transactions. The fear of developing dementia is about being abandoned by friends or family because we will no longer be able to contribute anything “useful” or enjoyable to the relationship.

My friend and colleague, Rev. John McFadden, once explained to me Aristotle’s definition of virtuous friendship centered on genuine commitment to help one another become better people. We wish good for our friends, seek to guard and protect them, spend time with them, and share in their joys and sorrows. In a virtuous friendship, we are not free to abandon our friends who journey into dementia. We are obligated to live our lives as companions to one another. This is our mission. Consider re-framing your view of Alzheimer’s and dementia like this:

  • Dementia does not reduce our capacity to love, or our need to express that love. Elders are not objects of pity and only the recipients of care. Focus on ability not limitation.
  • Give our friends permission to enter the world of memory loss. We should not greet them (often in an overly loud voice) with a string of questions. We create anxiety and agitation if we attempt to pull them back into a world they no longer inhabit.
  • In virtuous friendship, we bring our friends comfort, joy, and freedom from anxiety. Will your friend know who you are? Maybe not by name. But he does know you as one who cares and brings comfort and pleasure.
  • Be present in the moment. Conversation may flit rapidly from topic to topic. The joy of conversation with a dear friend is not the topics you discuss, but your emotional connection.
  • Within the real losses of dementia, the core of one’s personhood remains. Your friend may say something so wise or funny, you will see he is not simply an “empty shell.” You laugh hard because your friend’s joy is deep and infectious—and because he still has so much to give and teach to you.

During COVID-19, we may not be physically present to our family members or friends. But stay committed to your virtuous friendships through phone calls, video visits, cards or letters, and sending gifts. We all need more love and care than ever, and this includes our people with dementia.