Brain Health: Volunteer with Dementia Patients

by Maryanne Edmundson, Ph. D., L.P.

If you’re looking for a volunteer opportunity, you may consider working with people who have dementia.

Why volunteer? Many people’s lives have been touched by dementia. Some people with dementia do not have family close by or need more assistance than they have the resources to obtain – by volunteering, you can help to support their need for social interaction, entertainment, and fun! Your help may allow an opportunity for the person’s caregiver(s) to have a much-appreciated break. Plus, giving back to your community can be good for your own mood, sense of purpose, and keeps your brain active, all of which can reduce your own risk of cognitive decline. 

Before embarking on your volunteering journey, it helps to know some basic dementia facts. “Dementia” describes any decline in cognition (e.g., memory, thinking speed, attention) that causes a person to need more assistance with daily functioning, like driving and managing finances and medications. There are many different causes of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and strokes. The specific cognitive changes a person will have depends on the cause of the dementia and brain areas affected – for example, people with Alzheimer’s have problems with short-term memory, whereas a person who had a stroke may have no memory problems if the stroke did not occur in memory-related brain centers and pathways. When volunteering, it is helpful to know what type of dementia the people with whom you will be working have.

Even if you do not know the exact cause of the person’s dementia, there are some strategies you can use to make your volunteering go smoothly. First, if the person with whom you are volunteering has short-term memory loss, they may repeat stories and questions multiple times. Remain calm and every time the person repeats the same question, give them the same brief answer as if you have never said it before… to them, it may always feel like the first time. Second, because some dementias affect recent memories, visits may be facilitated by asking the person with dementia to recount pleasant memories from their past that they still remember well. Third, people with dementia may tire more easily and have a hard time with change, so it may help to keep visits brief, during a time of day when the person is less likely to be tired (such as the morning), and should not disrupt their typical routine. Ask the person’s caregivers what strategies they know help to calm the person if they become upset (like reassurance or distraction with a certain song or topic of interest). Fourth, people with dementia are more than their disorder. Unless the activity is centered on having dementia (as with support groups), you may wish to keep the conversation on something other than dementia, like the person’s hobbies and interests. Finally, generally speaking, people enjoy being treated with care, dignity, empathy, and validation of their worth as a person – the best volunteers strive to embody these ideals when working with people who have dementia.

The kinds of volunteer activities you may do with individuals with dementia may vary depending on the type or severity of the dementia, the setting (e.g., community-dwelling vs. nursing facility residents), and your time constraints and talents. You can check with your local assisted living or skilled nursing facilities regarding volunteer opportunities – some have programs for visiting residents, making gifts for them, or other activities (such as helping to throw holiday parties). Some volunteers use their talents of playing music or making colorful art to brighten the days of people with dementia. When working with people with severe dementia, it is advisable to keep the activity simple (e.g., listening to music) – complex tasks may be harder for the person to follow and may be more likely to lead to agitation.

Several organizations have volunteer opportunities, including the Alzheimer’s Association, Dementia Alliance of NC, and Moore County Department of Aging. Some areas also have Memory Cafés, in which people with dementia and their families can socialize with people in their community – these provide relatively brief, low stress times to brighten the day of someone with dementia.

If you have questions about volunteering with people who have cognitive difficulties and/or dementia, consult with your local neuropsychologist and/or dementia association.

Dr. Maryanne Edmundson is a clinical neuropsychologist at Pinehurst Neuropsychology Brain & Memory Clinic. She can be reached at 910-420-8041 or through the website at www.pinehurstneuropsychology.com.