Loving the Elderly Requires the Blessing of Presence

Those in Need Teach Valuable Lessons to Their Caregivers

Elderly persons who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s are “living in a world that gets dimmer and dimmer,” and the steps their loved ones can take to make their lives brighter will make a difference, said Janet Smith, a moral theologian, who spoke at a Sept. 23 talk at the World Meeting of Families Congress in Philadelphia.

With affection and humor, Smith shared insights and stories of caring for her 89-year-old mother, who suffers from dementia, in her talk entitled, “Loving the Elderly.” She identified ways to be sensitive to the needs of sufferers, along with practical tips for caring for them — and the caregiver.

Smith and her family have been caring for her mother for four years — and, more recently, Smith has reconfigured her teaching schedule and set aside some of her speaking, writing and other professional pursuits to become a full-time caregiver in Warren, Pa.

“It’s made me understand the sacrifices that those who have children make, and it has made me make some of those sacrifices, which is a good thing,” Smith said in a separate interview.

It’s important to strive to keep those with Alzheimer’s (a form of dementia) and dementia happy, to have fun and make them feel loved as much as possible, Smith said. “You put on music of her era, and that can just create a beautiful atmosphere. She feels very much at home.”

What’s needed most, whether they live at home or in a care facility, is the presence of their loved ones or someone befriending them, said Little Sister of the Poor Constance Veit, who is the Washington-based communications director for the religious congregation’s U.S. communities.

Many of those in earlier stages of Alzheimer’s/dementia suffer from the humiliation of making mistakes, and in all stages they suffer from loneliness, she said. The Little Sisters care for approximately 2,700 mostly poor elderly at 27 nursing homes in the United States. The Little Sisters are present in 30 countries worldwide. On Sept. 23, the Pope visited their home in Washington.

Smith shared her mother’s frequent comment that reflects both her mother’s condition and the goal of care: “I have no idea what’s going on, but it’s wonderful.”

Smith also recommended giving affirmations and keeping loved ones safe. Taking care with their appearance also boosts self-esteem and their sense of dignity; enabling them to feel productive through small tasks is important, too, she said.

Paying attention to lifetime preferences such as hairstyle, clothing and food is also a way to love the elderly and Alzheimer’s/dementia patients, Sister Constance said.

Smith cautioned against scolding elderly loved ones, telling them they don’t remember things or otherwise emphasizing their memory loss.

She advised keeping their surroundings as familiar as possible, noting that new things in the environment can agitate her mother. When the loved one is upset, she said, “You have a puzzle in front of you. You have to figure out what’s out of place.”

Also important is enabling loved ones to choose, rather than always telling them what to do. “As much as possible, ask permission, rather than dictate,” Smith said.

Smith recommends several books for those caring for Alzheimer’s/dementia sufferers: Learning to Speak Alzheimer’s: A Groundbreaking Approach for Everyone Dealing With the Disease by Joanne Koenig Coste; The Best Friends Approach to Alzheimer’s Care by Virginia Bell and David Troxel; and Thirty-Six Hour Day: A Family Guide to Caring for Persons With Alzheimer’s Disease by Nancy L. Mace.

Taking care of the caregiver is an important aspect of loving the elderly, Smith said. She advised taking breaks from the loved one to “reset your buttons.” She also suggested rest, staying on good terms with family members assisting in care, staying involved socially, hiring another caregiver and joining support groups.

“My life is Ground Hog Day,” she said. “I think God is trying to teach me to how get it right by being loving and patient.”

Sister Constance noted that it takes a community to care for a dementia patient; a person shouldn’t do it alone. She also said that some family members have difficulty accepting their loved ones’ memory loss.

Smith said that while living at home suits her mother, not all elders would necessarily thrive there.

The best situation varies for each person, Sister Constance agreed. It might be a nursing home or it might be home care.

Shirley Swoboda of Orange, Texas, who manages medical and practical care for both her elderly mother and mother-in-law long distance, said she is dealing with some of the issues Smith highlighted. “It just opened up a whole new avenue for me,” she said, “how to deal with them and understand them on a different level than I do now.”

Swoboda said she most appreciated Smith’s attitude toward her mother, which is inspiring her to be more positive and respectful toward her own mother and mother-in-law.

It is a privilege to care for one’s parents, and they still have so much to teach us, said Nan Bernardo-Freeman of Wilmington, Del., who attended the World Meeting of Families talk with her husband, Mark Freeman. “When you have a good day or a good moment, it’s priceless,” said Bernardo-Freeman, whose parents live independently but are soon likely to need more care.

Mark, whose father suffered from dementia, said he found many of Smith’s responses to her mother to be accurate. He recalled that even though his father didn’t always recognize him, he always seemed to know his son was someone close to him.

Sister Constance agreed: Even if they can’t respond, they often know their loved ones.

In his theology of the body teachings, St. John Paul II shows how our bodies can be a gift to others, and this is true of the elderly, Smith said. Sister Constance agreed, saying that the elderly give us the opportunity to love, which is evidence that we never lose the ability to be a gift to others.

Speaking of her relationship with her mother, Smith said elders needing our care give us the opportunity to love, which is a beautiful mission: “She needs to be cared for, and I need to care.”

For as Pope Francis said of multigenerational love at the Festival of Families during his papal trip, “A people that does not know how to care for the children and grandparents is a people without a future.”


Susan Klemond covered the World Meeting of Families for the Register.