Everyone needs friends, and if you’re living with a dementia diagnosis you might find you need them even more. As International Friendship Day approaches on July 30, we consider the importance of friendships for everyone affected by dementia
Wondering where all your friends have gone? It’s sad but true that many families on the dementia journey find that friendships they once held dear, seem to drift away or even disappear.
Research has often shown that a dementia diagnosis can bring with it feelings of acute loneliness, so it seems ironic that, when you need your friends the most, they simply aren’t there.
‘I was quite shocked by how quickly mum’s friends stopped visiting,’ recalls Sarah. ‘Mum didn’t say very much about it, but I’m sure she was upset too.’
This is an all too familiar scenario that leave many family carers feeling hurt and at times bewildered.
But when friends drift away, there’s rarely any malicious intent. It’s often more a case of people feeling awkward, frightened or wondering ‘what’s the point’ when their old friend can’t seem to remember shared experiences anymore…
However, recent research reveals that friendships can still flourish on the dementia journey – for those who choose to stick with them.
‘People who have remained engaged as friends after the onset of symptoms describe dementia as an impetus for personal and interpersonal transformations that can involve learning, growth and unexpected gifts – as well as sadness and loss,’ says Professor Janelle Taylor, from the University of Washington.
Fears about saying or doing ‘the wrong thing’ are also usually unfounded. ‘There is no instruction manual for interacting well with people who have dementia,’ adds Professor Taylor. ‘But friendships matter to adults with dementia for all the same reasons that friendships matter to anyone: They are sources of pleasure, support and social identity. ‘
Good friends can play an important role from the beginning, even helping to spot a potential problem, as Dianne Wilkinson can testify. ‘When a good friend suggested I saw a doctor, I decided to take her advice because I was feeling a bit low which was unlike me,’ recalls Dianne who was eventually diagnosed with early-onset dementia five years ago.
When Dianne later shared her dementia diagnosis with her friend, her reaction was again positive. ‘She was very pleased I’d told her and said it explained quite a lot,’ Dianne recalls. ‘She described how I’d gone to see her one day, sat in a chair and told her a story. I’d returned a few days later sat in the same chair and told the same story! I’d obviously been saying and doing things that were out of character for quite a while.’
If people with dementia need their friends around, so too do their family and carers who often report feeling isolated and lonely. In fact, many find the best way to combat feelings of isolation is to seek out new friends who understand what they’re experiencing.
‘Dad set up his own support group for couples with dementia,’ recalls Stephanie whose Mum has dementia. ‘They go to gigs, pubs, have meals at each other’s houses. It’s amazing. Their social life is sometimes busier now than before.’
Joy Watson decided to do the same after her diagnosis with dementia on her 55th birthday.’ I’ve done everything I could to connect with other people but it hasn’t been easy. Eventually I started my own group for people with young onset dementia, three people attended our first meeting and now we have 30 members, but best of all we really enjoy each other’s company and have a great laugh together.’
It seems that if old friendships can’t be salvaged, the best solution may be to go out and create a few new ones instead.