Dementia Special: Delirium, Alzheimer's, Dementia Care, and Supporting CaregiversPage 37 of 51

11. Everybody Needs Love

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Everyone needs to love and be loved.

We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread, but there are many more dying for a little love.

Mother Theresa
Nobel Prize-winner for Peace

All people, especially those with dementia, do best in a safe and loving environment, and this should be one of the goals in long-term care. It’s just common sense. Yet, although we strive to provide this type of care, many new residents feel abandoned and unloved. It’s always a surprise to me when facilities advise families not to visit for a week or two. The belief is that doing so will help the person with dementia become accustomed to their caregivers and adjust more quickly to their new home. Under these circumstances, how could a new admission to a dementia unit not feel abandoned by their family? Remember that people with dementia are just like you and me in many respects, and the need to give and receive love and affection is universal.

Think about what it must be like for the person on a dementia unit. Think about someone who experienced the love of family and friends and now may not even be able to remember them. What if that someone felt the joy of giving love in return. How would you feel in their place?


All of us need affection. We need to know that that our existence matters to someone, that we are important enough to have the support and love of those around us every day.

The first long-term care facility I worked in was very small. While there was an office for the administrator, there was no space for a nursing station of any kind. As a result, my desk was housed in a small hall that led to two rooms that had been added to the facility. Unlike the other rooms, these were private, and the residents who stayed in them were physically functional but had mid-stage dementia.

I usually arrived at my desk around 7:30 in the morning, in time to write up the nursing assistant schedules for the day, which required about twenty minutes to complete. I had been away for a few days and did not know the resident who had been admitted to one of the new rooms while I was gone. Settling in, I looked up to see a very sleepy woman who appeared to be in her seventies, wearing pajamas. Before I could say anything, she gave me a hug and sat down in my lap, putting her head on my shoulder. We sat there for a while.

After a few minutes, I coaxed her up and led her back to her room where she let me tuck her back in bed before falling asleep. I learned that her name was Hannah, and she had just been admitted the previous evening.

Later that day, I spent some time getting to know Hannah and her family. Hannah had stage 6 dementia and, like so many other residents at the facility, her family was concerned about her wandering away from home. She was very quiet and rarely said much, preferring to remain in her room most of the day.

Occasionally, Hannah’s family brought her grandchildren to visit. The interesting thing about Hanna was that she knew she was “Grandma” to the children, but also saw herself as a young child. It seems that her perception of her age was the reason she had come to sit in my lap in the morning; this was something she did as a child. It was a habit that became the usual routine whenever I was there. Hannah just really seemed to need a hug each morning before starting her day. I soon realized it was something I enjoyed as well.

I remember having a meeting with a potential family one morning when Hannah sleepily shuffled up the hall to come and sit in my lap and hug me. She stayed there while I finished the interview. When it was over, the family member smiled at me and said, “I know my mom is going to be happy here.”

One of the most powerful acts of love occurs when a woman gives birth and cares for her child. The love given and received is unconditional and lasting. So it is not at all unusual to find women in the later stages of dementia worrying about their babies.

A person with dementia has little or no memory of their recent life circumstances. They are living in the past. It is kinder for us to acknowledge their reality. The need to nurture and love one’s children is so strong it lingers long after other memories have faded. Since the advent of dementia units and specialized dementia care programs, the use of baby dolls has been an acceptable way to temporarily fill that need. The person with dementia is changing almost daily, so the woman looking for her baby will do so for only a short time, and then that memory, too, will be erased.

Doll therapy also has the potential to bring back happy memories of early parenthood and help make seniors feel useful and needed.

A study using dolls to alter behavior in dementia patients (Ellingford et al., 2007) found that doll therapy can increase positive behaviors in doll users and can help to decrease negative behaviors and incidences of aggression.