How to visit a dementia patient: Keep it short and sweet

The Next Best Thing

What’s the point?

That’s the question many family members of dementia patients wonder when it’s time to visit their loved ones who’ve lost their short-term memory.

Why visit when the patient’s memory of the visit will fade almost immediately?

There’s a one-word answer to that question: emotion.

A good feeling

Memories and emotions are deeply tied. So it’s not surprising that the area of the brain that controls emotion (the limbic system) contains the hippocampus where information is converted into memory.

Also not surprising: the hippocampus is usually damaged in patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

This produces a disturbing effect. Long-term memories are accessible, but new memories can’t be processed. So a patient with a damaged hippocampus can remember an old friend, but can’t remember that the friend paid a visit just an hour ago.

Even so, the visit still leaves an imprint on the limbic system.

University of Iowa researchers explored this phenomenon with a two-part experiment.

In part one, a group of patients (all with hippocampus damage) were shown sad film clips, such as the scene in Forrest Gump where Forrest is alone and crying at his wife’s grave. These clips produced strong reactions, bringing some of the patients to tears.

Within 30 minutes of the last clip, all the patients had forgotten they’d watched the clips. But their sadness still lingered.

In the Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences, the authors of the study write, “The patients continued to experience elevated levels of sadness well beyond the point in time at which they had lost factual memory for the film clips.”

Part two of the study followed the same design, but this time the film clips were funny or inspiring. And the basic result was the same. Within minutes, the film clips were forgotten, but good feelings remained long after.

In an NPR report about the study, Justin Feinstein, leader of the UI team, offered this advice for caretakers: “Telling them a simple joke, calling them up on the phone, giving them a visit, could actually have these enormous positive benefits.”

In the e-Alert “Take Good Care” (11/17/10), I told you about my friend Betty, a diabetic since childhood, who was diagnosed with vascular dementia at age 51.

Like the patients in the Iowa study, Betty’s hippocampus is damaged so her short-term memory lasts only a few minutes. She now lives in an excellent assisted living facility where family members, such as her husband Donald, are invited to special events such as barbeques, ice cream socials and karaoke parties.

When I talked to Donald and told him about the Iowa study, he was impressed and agreed completely with the results. Betty never remembers the special events, but her spirits are lifted for hours afterward.

He agrees that Feinstein’s advice is sound: On days when no events are planned, the length of the visit isn’t important, as long as the mood is as positive and upbeat as possible.

To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson

“Sustained Experience of Emotion after Loss of Memory in Patients with Amnesia” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Published online ahead of print 4/5/10,
“Emotions Outlast the Memories That Drive Them” Deborah Franklin, National Public Radio, 4/13/10,

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