Social Connection Matters
Relationships and social connection are important to our overall health. The human brain is hardwired for connection with other humans. In fact, we are so hard-wired that mirror neurons in our brains mirror the experiences and emotions of other human beings. This mirroring directly impacts our brain chemistry.
People living with dementia and the caregivers who support them are at high risk for isolation. This isolation puts them at risk for other negative health consequences, consequences that can exacerbate the impact of dementia.
The Science of Social Connection
In a TED Talk in April of 2014, science journalist and author, Emma Seppälä of Stanford University, reported that low social connection causes great harm. It leads to increased anxiety, depression, violence, suicide and whole-body inflammation. She reports that the negative impact of decreased social connection on health is worse than smoking, high blood pressure and obesity. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WZvUppaDfNs
The Friend “Drop Off”
So, what happens to social connections in people living with dementia and their caregivers? Many people in the early stages of Dementia say friends stop calling, inviting them to go places, and coming by. Even the ones they thought they could count on tend to drop off. They feel like their friends have divorced them. A lack of understanding of the stages and types of dementia which affects 50,000 million globally is probably why people react this way. A recent global survey by Alzheimer’s Disease International found that 38% of those living with dementia in high income countries, including the U.S. report feeling avoided, ignored, and ostracized in their social lives.
10 Ways You an be a Friend to Someone with Dementia
1. Learn. Educate yourself about the disease and its stages. The Alzheimer’s Association is a great resource (https://www.alz.org/)
2. Connect. Call them; be there with them; invite them to go do an activity. Even if you are unsure about what to “do,” your presence matters. A lot.
3. Help. Ask if there is something they need help with.
4. Include. Talk to them directly and make eye contact.
5. Have patience. Be patient if they repeat themselves and avoid pointing it out. Be patient with activities they seem to need to do that don’t necessarily make sense to you. Allow extra time to do EVERYTHING.
6. Slow down. Give plenty of time to answer the questions.
7. Avoid having to be right. Don’t argue with them if they are incorrect; just go with the flow to avoid embarrassing them. Based on the way their brain works, what they are saying is truly their reality. Disagreeing with them takes them to an emotionally frightening place, because their experience is no longer one they can make sense of. Their defensiveness is not contrariness. Rather, the defensiveness arises from their need for their experience to make sense so they can feel safe in the world.
8. Don’t test. It can be really tempting to “check in” to see what the person remembers, but this kind of testing is stressful. People find it frustrating and scary when they can’t recall basic information they know they should be able to recall. Offer reminders and avoid asking lots of questions that can be confusing.
9. Quiet. Avoid loud and crowded places they can be overwhelming.
10. The Golden Rule. Generally, just treat your friend or family member with dementia the way that you would want to be treated. Think about how you would want to be included and what would make you feel valued. Everybody, including people with dementia, just wants to be loved.
Although people with dementia are at high risk for social isolation which can negatively impact their overall health and exacerbate their cognitive decline, there are things you can do to minimize this risk. Focusing on social connection with some of these strategies can increase people’s health and happiness. Give it a try!