The need for love and affection does not change when a person develops dementia symptoms. Although people with dementia may present themselves differently as the disease progresses, their need for loving attention continues. How they best receive this love will depend on the individual and their experience. Consider how your loved one historically felt and received love as this can help you to determine what may work today. If they appreciated a hug, a gentle pat, or connection of hands in the past they may still enjoy this now. If they were a person who preferred their own personal space not be invaded, then we should continue to respect this. Keep in mind, affection can be a smile, wink, or head nod, kind, affirming words of love, or physical connection.
When providing physical connection with a person with dementia, it’s important that they can see you first. Avoid tapping them from behind. First, get their visual attention. This can be done with a quick knock on the door to draw attention to you. Once they see you, reach your hand out to shake hands, and if they take your hand, it can be considered an invitation into their personal space. Once there, it is important to consider their joints as places best to rest your hand. For example, touching a knee, shoulder, or elbow will provide pressure and comfort. Avoid leaning in towards a person with dementia as you may take up much of their visual field, sending a confrontational message.
Some people with dementia will become more affectionate than they were prior to the disease. This may look like reaching out, touching, or grabbing people, even people they may not know. It is important to look for the unmet need behind their actions and to be helpful rather than tell them “no” or “stop it.” Examples of unmet needs include loneliness, boredom, hunger, thirst, needing to toilet, pain, etc. When we see a person’s behavior as a form of communication, we will find ourselves in a better position to respond. Perhaps approaching a person with dementia with a gentle smile and welcoming handshake can curb off any intense physical response later in the day.
Touch is a human need as well as food, water, shelter, air, etc. Understanding how the person with dementia is experiencing touch can help us in knowing how to best show our affection. Unfortunately, you won’t find a book telling you exactly what works for your loved one as everybody experiences the disease differently. For questions about your specific situation, call ADRC at (920) 448-4300. The Dementia Care Specialist is here to provide you with individualized support.