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Minding our Elders: Helping elders socialize when stress overwhelms them

DEAR CAROL: My mother doesn’t like going out of the house. She’s got mid-stage dementia, so I think that the typical fear and confusion from the disease are the cause of the problem. I try to take her out for lunch or for church occasions that she would have enjoyed in the past, but now she becomes anxious as soon as we arrive and wants to go home. I’ve gotten so that I don’t want to take her out, yet I know that she needs to do something besides watch TV. Any suggestions? – Theresa

DEAR THERESA: If crowds at church or in restaurants make your mom anxious, you could keep things simple like taking her to a park to watch some children play, an art gallery if she’d enjoy that, or simply go for a drive. The idea would be to get her out of the house without a crowd around to make her anxious. You could also try taking her to breakfast or lunch at a familiar restaurant during an off time such as mid-morning or mid-afternoon. That may be a better fit for her than the standard busy times.

Your mom might find easing into more socialization helpful. While for many seniors the local senior citizens’ center is a big part of life, this isn’t necessarily the right place for people who don’t want to be in crowds. Adult day care may be a better solution for your mom. These care facilities generally provide many types of entertainment as well as social interaction with peers, but they aren’t as crowded as a senior center may be and activities are more tailored to individuals. After some adjustment time, many elders feel safe and enjoy the time they spend at ADC.

You might want to try taking your mom to ADC one time while you stay with her. Keep the time short and then take her home. Later, if she’s even a little willing, try a second visit. This time, if she seems engaged with others, let her know that you must leave for a short errand but will be back before long. With time, your mom could gradually become comfortable enough to stay for a half-day or more. Let the staff help you find the best approach for her comfort.

Also, talk with your mom’s doctor about her anxiety over going out of the house. If she’s worried about embarrassment over her memory issues, it may be natural to withdraw somewhat. However, since she enjoyed these functions in the past, the doctor may feel that medication for social anxiety could be helpful.

In the end, if your mother simply can’t enjoy going out, then bringing in some comfortable old friends to visit on occasion is an option. Hiring a caregiver to spend time with her is also a possibility. She needs to feel as free of anxiety as possible, so you may need to accommodate her needs in other ways and not force too much on her.