Is there a good substitute for family connection?
August 25, 2012 6:20 PM   Subscribe

How can I help my grandma feel less lonely? She has dementia and alzheimers, but it still pretty together most of the time. She should be surrounded by family, but isn't- we are all so spread apart. . .

My Grandmother lives in an assisted living place for people with dementia. She is often quite lucid and pretty fit, considering she is 93 and only recently has taken to using a walker.

My parents live nearby, but they are the only family in that area. Consequently she is lonely when they leave her, particularly after other family members have visited.

She is not given to much socializing with the other residents, although she does participate in art and exercise classes there.

I have gotten her a magazine subscription that she likes and skype her regularly- as do other family members. However, she still seems to just have too much time on her hands and not enough family around to keep her company.

What can I do to give her something fun, to supplement the lonely hours when my parents are off doing their own thing and no one is skyping her?

She likes to draw and paint. She plays the piano. But I think she really needs human interaction more. Should I get her a dvd collection? What gives the feeling of human connection? What can distract her so that she doesn't focus on the absence of people she cares for so much?
posted by abirdinthehand to Human Relations (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
When you're stuck in one place - camp, jail, an assisted living facility, whatever - getting mail is huge. You can mail her a letter or a care package each month. It will give her something to look forward to and serve as a physical reminder that you give a crap.

Another option, since you say she's still lucid, is to recommend books to each other and discuss them when you skype. (Or listen to This American Life or Radio Lab each week.) The reading will give her something to else to do, and the exchange of ideas afterwards will reinforce the connection between the two of you. Plus, I'm sure it would mean a lot to her if you read one of her favorites.

Finally - I'm not sure about the dynamic you guys share, but if you always joked around, keep joking! I could tell my grandmother was sad and scared when she moved to an assisted living facility, and one thing I think that helped was continuing to be silly with her. It sends the message, "Yes, your living situation has changed because you're getting older, and that sucks, but you're still the same person to me."
posted by jessca84 at 6:54 PM on August 25, 2012 [6 favorites]

I think that finding ways to encourage her to be part of the activities and connect with the people in her home could be another route.

Perhaps you or your parents could talk with the staff / program director about ways to engage your grandma by giving her appropriate tasks, like helping others get to meals, or doing puzzles.

Photo albums with captions can be another good thing, a way for her to show others about her life. You could potentially make it together via Skype and then mail it to her.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 6:58 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just moved away from my grandmother (who is similar in health and outlook as yours) and we're both struggling with it.

One thing I do is call her, not quite every night (although that's the goal) but about every two nights out of three. We talk for a very brief amount of time- about seven to ten minutes. This is good for her because she has very little short-term memory, but can remember and identify patterns. If I called her once a week, the first thing she would say is, "You haven't called in a long time." She wouldn't remember the previous week's call. It took us about a week of near-daily calls for her to know who I was on the phone (she didn't at first), and for her to say, "Oh, Snarl, I know it's you, because you're the only granddaughter who calls!" (Sorry, cousins, I'm still the favorite!)

So one thing to try in between Skype calls is very brief phone calls to say good morning or good night. I've found that on my way to work is a good time. You might also see if you had some cousins or other relatives who were willing to sign up for different times, so she got three calls a day or something.

Another thing is to sign her up with the homebound elders program in her church (if she has one). My grandmother is a part of that, and someone comes to visit her once a month. I think we just called them and said that she was a homebound congregant and could they put her on the visit list.

You could also call around to schools close to where she is and see if any of them have "Adopt A Grandparent" programs. I would also check with church youth groups, girl and boy scouts, etc, or any other program that has some kind of service component for kids. Hanging out and playing cards with a saucy old lady a couple hours a week is a great way to rack up your service hours.

Nthing mail, my grandma loooooves mail.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 7:05 PM on August 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

Going along with what Jessca84 said -- what if you mailed her a postcard or picture of yourself doing something silly every week? Grandmas get pretty excited about pictures of stuff that otherwise seems pretty banal - here's me at work! Here's me out to dinner with a huge burrito! Here's me and a friend making goofy faces!

Does a nearby library have a Homebound program that could be used to mail her books or audiobooks? That way she would always have something new to read or listen to, plus, more mail!
posted by itsamermaid at 7:08 PM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Perhaps you or your parents could talk with the staff / program director about ways to engage your grandma by giving her appropriate tasks, like helping others get to meals, or doing puzzles.

Oh, yes, elders, like all of us, really like to be useful and needed. Saying something like, "Ruth, if it isn't too much trouble, Betty just loves to play chess but doesn't have a partner and she's so lonely. Is there any way you could play with her, just for an hour or so?" often goes a long way. Also, she might need to be encouraged to socialize at the art and exercise classes, or it might happen naturally, but often what happens is that once she stops being interested in actively making art or whatever, she'll continue to go because she has a friend there and doesn't want the friend to be lonely.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 7:09 PM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Facebook and Twitter? She could follow your and her other family and friends' updates, if she isn't already. And she could add her own, even if they are about world events seen in the news etc. rather than her day to day life, and y'all could comment on them.

I also think she would benefit in this area if you can convince her to increase her socializing with her neighbors.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:21 PM on August 25, 2012

My grandparents' birthday is coming up. This year's gift for them will be an iPad. They're very with it, but are 80-some-odd years old. What I am planning to do is to drive up to visit them and to teach Grandpa how to use the iPad to pull down RSS feeds.

What I've found with my parents and grandparents is that they don't understand the 'push' concept of content -- that there's people out there, writing about things that they care about, that they can live vicariously through. So I'm currently teaching my mother, and plan to teach my grandmpa, how to subscribe to RSS feeders in Google Reader and pull them up on the iPad in Reeder. The daily news reports on politics and the stock market fascinate my grandfather; my mother wants to read more home renovation and gardening blogs.

I would say that the best thing you can do is to find some way to remind your grandmother that there is a large world out there that she can see and participate in and live vicariously through, even if she's "trapped" in an assisted living facility and is old. If you can find some way to pique her interest (as my grandpa said, "Oh, that's not for me...", until I showed him precisely why it was "for him"...) then you will make a huge difference in her life.
posted by SpecialK at 11:33 PM on August 25, 2012

Seconding encourage grandma to interact with the other residents. A friend of mine had the same problem when her mother needed to go to assisted care. The mother would stay in her room and only talk to my friend. Gradually, by taking 'mother' outside for a breath of fresh air and then lingering in the common rooms, my friend got 'mother' a bit better acclimated, acquainted with some of the other residents, and more at peace with her situation.
posted by Cranberry at 11:56 PM on August 25, 2012

My grandmother is 99 (100 in a couple of weeks) and in assistive living. I'd get her an iPad in a hot minute if her room wasn't so well-built that it gets no cell or wifi at ALL! One of her favorite things is when my mom visits her, they look at videos of the great grandkids. If I could, I'd FaceTime her and just have the kids hanging out and playing and talking.

But what keeps her going on a day to day basis is that her assistive living facility has lots of stuff going on: movie nights, games, church, bussed field trips, music practice, chair aerobics. Also, the staff is really great about making the residents feel cared for and about. So maybe ask at her center about activities for the residents? My grandmother doesn't participate now as much as she did in her early nineties, but when she first moved in after living with my mom in a rural area she felt SO much more engaged and surrounded by people and activities. She loved it!
posted by instamatic at 6:21 AM on August 26, 2012

Either Netflix or another source of great old movies. Send her the music of her generation; my Mom didn't have dementia, but as she got older, she really loved having the music of her early 20s on cd. Can she knit, crochet, etc?

If she's in a country setting, she can watch for birds, wildflowers and draw/paint them, or other wildlife. She could draw/paint other residents; perhaps their families would value this. In a city setting, she could paint or photograph daily life, buildings, whatever is outside. Even taking a picture at the same time every day, at the same place, would tell an interesting story.

Learning: see if there's something you'd both like to learn, maybe French, or Renaissance Art. There are tons of resources on the web for any subject. Even better, is there something she can teach you?

A sense of purpose: Can she play piano for other residents, read to people who can no longer read? Your grandma has your family's history in her head. When you call her, ask her about her parents, grandparents, etc., her houses, schools, what your parent was like as a baby, politics and elections when she was younger, etc. Get the family recipes, and the genealogy. Can she sing? Ask her to sing favorite songs and record them. When my Mom talked about her youth, I learned all sorts of stuff, and I'm happy to have a better understanding of her, as well as a better understanding of life in her time. There are likely to be surprises.

You are so lucky to have each other.
posted by theora55 at 7:37 AM on August 26, 2012

One thing my dad did when my grandmother's mind was starting to go, is he digitized all the family pictures and slides that had been boxed up and unseen for decades. (If your family pics are already in albums, then this probably isn't worthwhile.) It was a big job, so if you don't have a lot of spare time, you could probably hire somebody to do it--maybe even a young family member. He put them all on a DVD that you could just stick in a player and they would play on a loop, but I'm sure there are other options with technology these days. Since the older memories stay in tact longer with Alzheimer's, she really got a lot of joy out of the old pictures--heck, so did the rest of the family. She could just spend hours watching the pictures (and depressingly, as the Alzheimer's got worse, every time she re-watched them it was like she hadn't seen them in years). I don't know how far it would go to address the loneliness issue, but if your family has old buried pictures, making them accessible again will be an incredible gift. They took the pictures because there was something they wanted to remember--now, more than ever, is the time to remember and enjoy them.
posted by gueneverey at 8:01 AM on August 26, 2012

I've shared this before, but I'll share it again. Get her to sit down and talk about her life experiences and record them on video. Since she is frequently lucid and enjoys talking with you, it will be the best investment you ever make...for her.

When she is feeling lost and lonely, the sound and pictures of her remembering the important events of her life will help to put her at ease like nothing else. When outside contact and interaction become very difficult, this may be a very helpful tool.

I only have anecdata, but it worked very well in our circumstances.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 8:52 AM on August 26, 2012

Not social, but on the mail end of things, you might consider introducing her to Postcrossing, if you think she'd enjoy sending postcards to people around the world--and then getting random postcards in return. She wouldn't necessarily have to be computer-savvy if someone else were to print for her the profiles for the recipients--but the savvy helper would also have other related chores. You could give her a big stack of stamped postcards and let her do the rest. Makes for interesting and unexpected mail. And the more you send, the more you get.
posted by AnOrigamiLife at 12:15 AM on August 27, 2012

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