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COVID Family Reunions Are Mostly Joyful. For Those With Dementia, It Gets Complicated


As more Americans get vaccinated, we've been able to see more videos of joyful family reunions, especially parents and grandparents at the long-term care facilities being able to hug their families for the first time in a year. But for families with loved ones who suffer from Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia, those reunions can be complicated. We're joined now by Gus Noble, chief executive officer at the Caledonia Senior Living and Memory Care facility in North Riverside, Ill.

Mr. Noble, thanks so much for being with us.

GUS NOBLE: It's a great pleasure.

SIMON: What have you been seeing at your place?

NOBLE: When we were able to open up and reconnect families, there was one moment in particular, I recall, when a mother and a daughter hugged. This was the first hug we had on our campus in over 12 months. And I have to say that in that hug, through tears of joy, I realized that I was glimpsing both the past and the future. It felt very refreshing to conceive of tomorrow. But then immediately, I was also reminded that people living with dementia - they can't really conceive of anything other than the moment they're in.

SIMON: Video calls have been helpful for many families, but I wonder if they're particularly confusing with people who might have dementia.

NOBLE: They are. Certainly, nothing can ever replace the human interaction. But for those people living with dementia, I think it's particularly difficult. The advice we're now giving to families as they come in to visit is think about what the condition means for your loved one's ability to conceive of the world around them, both the pandemic and time itself, but find ways to dignify the time you have together.

SIMON: How do families reconnect after a year? They've missed a lot of each other, haven't they?

NOBLE: Even if your loved one can't remember your name or how you're connected to them, they still will know that you showed up for them. They still will know that somebody loves them and that their lives matter. And when you visit, if you're calm, they will be calm and enjoy the visit more together. The kind of activities that encourage families to consider when they're visiting are things that will connect or remind the resident to the purpose and the passion that informed and defined their lives. And for most of us, that comes down to feelings of home and family and love. And it could be their work. It could be moments spent at church together. Bring photographs or music. And if you're able to take a walk outside - and many residents will be able to have connections within a moment but won't be able, necessarily, to have short-term recall. Try to avoid questions and things that might frustrate or agitate.

SIMON: Yeah. What about a question like, so how have you been?

NOBLE: Yeah. Some residents would respond quite well to that. I think it's a nice open question, understanding that this is a condition which depends on circumstances, depends on the person and changes from moment to moment.

SIMON: Yeah, a lot of family members must worry about the loved one that they haven't seen for a year just will not remember them. What do you tell them?

NOBLE: A lesson we learned is even if they do not remember us, we must remember them. A context and a conversation around the remembrance of what was important to the resident - if you focus on those, then you will put the resident at ease. You will put your loved one in a position where they may not remember you, but they will recognize they are important to you.

SIMON: So even if they don't remember us, it's important we remind each other that there's love there.

NOBLE: Exactly.

SIMON: Gus Noble is executive director at the Caledonia Senior Living and Memory Care facility. Thank you so much for being with us, sir.

NOBLE: Thank you, Scott. Be well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.