Staying Close to Alzheimer’s Sufferers When You’re Far Away

Distance makes a tough situation tougher, but Alzheimer’s needn’t get in the way of expressing love and support. What to say and do.

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Living far away from those you love can be difficult, but cell phones, video chat and emails keep the connection alive. When a loved one suffers from Alzheimer’s, however, the very tools designed to aid communication can complicate outreach, and the confusion isn’t only one-sided.

Family members may not know how, exactly, to stay in touch with somebody who will eventually forget who they are, and may fear with every call that there will be zero recognition on the other end. They may not know what’s helpful versus hurtful. They may struggle with having their own needs met versus deferring to those of the person suffering from Alzheimer’s.

The situations and emotions can indeed be challenging. The following advice can make connecting easier and more rewarding.

Best not call after dark

Many people with Alzheimer’s experience sundowning, or increased confusion and anxiety as evening approaches. For the best chance at communicating, call between mid-morning and mid-afternoon, recommends Lori Fleming, cognitive educator at Friends Fellowship Community in Richmond, Ind. “The evenings and early mornings are not good because their minds get wired up throughout the evening and, occasionally, it causes people with sundowners to kind of stay up really late,” says Fleming.

But absolutely make the call

Regular communication is the most crucial and valuable component in keeping the relationship ongoing and strong. During conversations, keep the sentences and dialogue short and simple. Keep the call itself short, too. “Little two-, three- and four-minute phone calls are probably better than 15-minute phone calls,” says Angela Lunde, dementia education specialist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Who is this?

Don’t pressure the loved one with Alzheimer’s to recognize you. Simply say who you are and why you’re calling. You might be tempted to ask the Alzheimer’s sufferer if they know with whom they’re speaking. Don’t. This question can cause discomfort and anxiety. If they don’t make the connection, just continue talking to them.

No harm in a little lie

Family members will often notice that their relative suffering from Alzheimer’s is saying things that obviously aren’t grounded in reality. Don’t correct them. "In Grandpa’s eyes, it’s his life, his story, and that’s his reality in that moment,” explains Lunde. Going along with the incorrect stories isn’t contributing to “Grandpa’s” delusions or supporting his “lies.” In her support groups, Lunde doesn’t use the word “lying;” instead, she and the group members call it “therapeutical fibbing.”

Letters are touchable memories

Long-distance family members shouldn’t overlook snail mail. Loved ones with Alzheimer’s respond extremely well to letters and cards because they can read and look at them every day. “They’re a constant reminder that they have a connection to somebody, and that’s what I think makes it probably even more valuable than a phone call,” says Lunde.

Overall, remember that loved ones with Alzheimer’s might not be able to recall your name or realize how much you once meant to them, but you still have the ability to put a smile on their face and bring them happiness, regardless of how many miles separate you. And isn’t that, after all, the point of expressing love?