Aging relatives in retirement homes count on family visits - not just over the holidays, but throughout the year. To brighten an otherwise lonely day for residents, grandchildren can play bingo, share scrapbooks and show off new skills like reading or playing music. Even the family pet may be able to visit.
If your family member has Alzheimer's, he or she may not remember who the visitors are, but the human connections still have value, say experts at the National Institute on Aging.
According to the institute, as many as 5.1 million Americans currently suffer from Alzheimer's disease, a progressive, irreversible brain disorder that destroys memory and thinking skills. With the aging of the U.S. population, the number of people with Alzheimer's could more than double by 2050.
Considerations vary, but basic reminders about visiting people with Alzheimer's:
* Plan the visit for the time of day when the person with Alzheimer's is at his or her best.
* Bring along an activity, such as something familiar to read or photo albums to look at, but be prepared to skip it if necessary.
* Avoid using a loud tone of voice or talking to the person as if he or she were a child.
Be sure to talk to your kids about what to expect during a visit to a nursing home so that they won't be alarmed by sights such as residents slumped in wheelchairs, or by unfamiliar smells and sounds.
Along with the increasing number of Alzheimer's cases, the number of children's books on the topic is also rising. Books can give parents a way to tap into feelings that young children may have about grandparents with the disease. Suggested books include:
* "Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge" (Kane/Miller Book Publishers, 1989) by Mem Fox. The titular boy lives next door to a nursing home in which resides Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper - his favorite friend, because she, too, has four names. When Miss Nancy "loses" her memory, Wilfrid tries to find it for her.
* "The Memory Box" (Albert Whitman and Co., 1992) by Mary Bahr. When Gramps realizes he has Alzheimer's, he starts a memory box with his grandson to keep memories of all the times they have shared.
* "Still My Grandma" (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2007) by Veronique Van Den Abeele, who wrote the book after her own grandmother developed Alzheimer's disease. Grandma is sick, but the focus is on loving her just the way she is.
* "Grandpa Has Changed" (Barron's Educational Series, 2009) by Jennifer Moore-Mallinos. Alzheimer's disease makes Grandpa forget names and places and how to do everyday things. That's why he needs someone to help him, and why he can't do many things he did before.
* "Singing With Momma Lou" (Lee and Low Books, 2002) by Linda Jacobs Altman. A 9-year-old girl and her family visit her grandmother in a nursing home. Tamika has to introduce herself to her grandmother every week because she has Alzheimer's and forgets who the child is. Tamika remembers a different Momma Lou, and resents visiting this woman who doesn't remember her. Then she goes through her grandmother's keepsakes and finds photos that help Momma Lou remember some of her younger days.
* "Hugging Grandma" (Ferne Press, 2009) by Zina Kramer. A grandmother stops remembering a little girl's birthday and all of her favorite things, but her mom teaches the child how to help Grandma and understand her illness.