Helping children visit people with dementia/Alzheimer's

By Helen J Bate B.A. Dip.Arch. B.A.(Hons)

The difficulties of visiting people with dementia/Alzheimer's in a care home are well known. It is often hard to find things to talk about. Conversations can be repetitive and stilted. The life of someone with dementia/Alzheimer's living in a care home, can appear to have little in common with normal life in the ‘outside world' and there may be few topics that encourage shared, meaningful and enjoyable communication. This can be hard for relatives, and visiting can become less and less fun, and sometimes unfortunately, less frequent.

When people with dementia/Alzheimer's have younger relatives, grandchildren or great grandchildren, this problem can be even more acute. Although it can be a great joy for people with dementia/Alzheimer's to have younger visitors, the needs of the children concerned must be addressed if these visits are to be successful. The youngest children can be distracted and engaged with toys, and can be watched at play by the person with dementia/Alzheimer's.  The person with dementia/Alzheimer's may enjoy joining in with the young child, playing with a pop up toy or playing simple interactive games such as ‘Row the Boat'. That may be enough for this younger age group.

However older children over around 4 years of age may be more successfully occupied if they are taking part in shared and appropriate activity with the adults around them. This will also be more interesting, joyful and engaging for the person with dementia/Alzheimer's. This type of activity can be compiling scrap-books, looking at suitable illustrated books, or doing art activities together.

For scrap-book activities, all a care home, or relatives, need to provide is a work table, a supply of old magazines, birthday cards, and perhaps bits of fabric and ribbon, a loose leaf folder with sturdy pages, some child friendly scissors, crayons or felt tips and some glue sticks.  Then someone with dementia/Alzheimer's may happily spend an hour with young visitors working together on a scrap-book that can provide the person with dementia/Alzheimer's with something to keep and look at again and again. It can make the visit enjoyable for a child and so help to make visits longer and more frequent. It is also nice for the young visitor to feel that they are ‘helping Granny' in this way.

‘Colouring in' is another, and less ‘messy' art activity that is easy to organize and easy to take part in. Although adult appropriate colouring sheets can be hard to find, Pictures to Share produce a range of designs that are suitable for adults and visitors can bring in their own child appropriate colouring books if they choose. Then all that is needed is some crayons or felt tips and a suitable work table. All ages understand the principle of ‘colouring in', especially children, and it is often enjoyed by those with dementia/Alzheimer's because it is not too demanding and like all art activities, it can be very engrossing; a great way to relax and spend an enjoyable hour. There can be lively discussions about what pictures to choose, what colours to use, or talking about each other's work and where to display it, and this can in turn lead to all sorts of other conversations.

Research carried out by Pictures to Share, a social enterprise established to develop visual media for people with dementia/Alzheimer's, has shown that their range of illustrated books are a great way for children to engage with relatives with dementia/Alzheimer's. The adult usually has experience of reading ‘picture books' with children and they will naturally sit next to a child and share a book. They will sometimes take turns to read or help each other out, and they will naturally talk about what is in the pictures.  Because the books are accessible for the person with dementia/Alzheimer's, and yet are also attractive to all ages, both adult and child feel that they are taking part, contributing and enjoying the experience.

These types of activity don't require a ‘proper conversation' to be maintained, but they can create a sense of shared activity that can be enjoyed by both parties and maintain a sense of the person with dementia/Alzheimer's still being able to offer something to the relationship.

It can be even more difficult to encourage teenagers to engage with a relative in a care home, and here the internet can be a fantastic tool. ‘YouTube' has an endless resource of musical clips from old films or performances by well-known singers from all eras, and teenagers have the interest and the understanding of the technology to access this. This can help to give the teenager a sense of purpose during the visit and can be a really enjoyable entertainment for the person with dementia/Alzheimer's and other visitors. All that is required is internet access (something that in this day and age, should be available in all care homes) and a laptop that can usually be brought from home.  Pictures to Share have some clips on their website to help get started with this activity. These range from Elvis songs, songs from The Sound of Music and other popular musicals, Rock and Roll favourites, hymns, and many more. Youngsters can find funny clips to show, and possibly slightly shock, their elderly relative, and this can all add to the sense of real fun and engagement. YouTube is a wonderful resource for people with dementia/Alzheimer's and totally interactive; all that's needed is a bit of knowledge of the internet.