Even as memory declines, friendships can endure

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"The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing ... not healing, not curing ... that is a friend who cares." - Henri Nouwen

As most of you know who read my column, Memory Matters offers a class, Connections, specifically for persons in the early stages of dementia. These classes are designed to help people accept their diagnosis, and to realize they should not be defined by, or ashamed of, this diagnosis.

The class also gives the students an opportunity to develop new friendships, while encouraging them to maintain their old friendships.

The students are taught to accept changes in their memory, rather than "fake it," which can be a great source of stress. Acceptance helps restore balance in their lives, and gives them a sense of accomplishment.

Suggestions to aid in acceptance can include:

  • Remain engaged and active
  • Respond to challenges that will help maximize their independence
  • Gain a sense of control over their lives

So how does the person who has been diagnosed with dementia help friends and family understand what is happening?

Here are a few very important tips:

  • Share your experiences living with Alzheimer's and tell them what you're still comfortable doing
  • Invite them to educational programs and to any classes you are taking to promote your brain health
  • Let them know when you need help and support - and when help is offered, take them up on it.

There will be times when relationships get stuck. Don't give up! Help each other realize that changes are going to happen so changes in the relationship need to happen. It is not always going to feel comfortable but some adjustments can be made. These include:

  • Speak honestly and frankly about feelings. This can be difficult, but try to hear one another, listen to one another, and really listen.
  • Focus on the positive changes you can make that might help you regain your sense of closeness. Perhaps you could recall times you traveled together or attended special events together. Most people in the early stages of dementia can recall past events. Photos are always a plus.
  • Take action. Make plans to do something that you both enjoy together.
  • Introduce a third party if necessary. The journey can be long and together you will go through many changes and stages; however, friendships can endure. You both just might have to go that extra mile.
  • If friends and family get stuck in the process seek help.

True friendship is not something to be taken for granted. As we age, these friendships become even more important, but with age comes change, physically and mentally. These changes do not have to end a friendship.

Do you have a friend who has been newly diagnosed? Need some support? Call Memory Matters at 843-842-6688. We can help.

Karen Doughtie is assistant director of Memory Matters, serving Bluffton and Hilton Head. karen@memory-matters.org; memory-matters.org

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