Eight Ways You Can Help a Friend Trapped by Alzheimer's

It’s been a busy nine months since my book came out last fall. I’ve shared our story with several dozen publications, groups, online sites, and radio and TV programs. And more are being lined up for this summer and fall.

I’ve been asked a variety of questions at these events, but there’s one unspoken question that seems to be at the heart of many of these: “My friend’s family is struggling with Alzheimer’s. What can I do?”

Trying to help a friend in such a crisis can be tricky. We don’t want to interfere, but we also want our friend and family to know we care and stand ready to help.

You’ve probably seen the following tips in one form or another in my blog posts and in my book A Path Revealed. But I thought it helpful to gather them into one post for your quick review. I’ve also developed a flyer to pass out at speaking engagements.     

1)  Stop! Look! Listen! I was taught this in the first grade, but I doubt I learned anything then. This probably is the most important thing you can do. Don’t try to impose an agenda. Take cues from your friend. Pay attention.

2) If your friend is the caregiver, encourage them to take care of themselves. Are they getting help so they can take breaks? I learned the hard way the No. 1 Rule for Caregivers: If you want to take good care of your loved one, then you also must learn to take good care of yourself.

3) Can you organize a schedule in which friends of your friend commit to a time each week to be with the loved one…run errands with them, visit a museum, go to a movie, etc.? As a caregiver, I didn’t recognize this need for a long while. Only after our sister-in-law KK intervened and joined my wife Martha in a painting class did I realize this need. KK also helped me vet daytime aides when I couldn’t leave Martha alone anymore.

         Martha's Piano Man

         Martha's Piano Man

4) Would it be appropriate for you to talk with and support their children? One of my greatest gifts came when two of our children offered me a weekend a month off, which I usually spent in a nearby monastery

5) Emotional, psychological, and spiritual issues are embedded in virtually every crisis, including Alzheimer’s. These need to be recognized and resolved as best we can if we hope to have any kind of healing. Issues such as fear, guilt, stigma, confusion, bitterness, anxiety, alienation, anger, depression … and I could go on and on.

In a mature and sensitive way encourage your friend to address such issues. BUT DO NOT FORCE the issue. A possible approach: Share your own vulnerabilities, such as your fears and anger and embarrassments and what helped you to resolve them.

6) No one has all the answers to a crisis like Alzheimer’s. But your best role may be as a friend and possible resource person. Help connect your friend—IF he or she indicates the need—with a good therapist counselor, or a mature, practical, spiritual director. Martha and I were more than fortunate that mentors—either in person or via books and tapes—arose with our changing needs: Rev. Lacy Harwell, Sr. Elaine Prevallet, Sundar Singh, Fr. John Main, Fr. Matthew Kelty, the Zahls, Canon Jim Glennon, and more.

7) If the person disabled by Alzheimer’s is unable to communicate verbally, my experience has been that there still is a deep undercurrent of non-verbal communication. A silent, intimate communion. You obviously don’t have the emotional connection that a spouse, parent, or child does. So encourage your friend to sit quietly with their loved one, hold hands, and silently pray and meditate.

But also, if you visit your friend who’s disabled, don’t think you need to carry on a one-way conversation. Instead think about quietly sitting beside their chair or bed while silently praying and meditating.

8) First, last, and always…Stop! Look! Listen!

These are a few lessons that 17 years of hard-won experience taught me. I hope there’s some value here for you. I suspect these, with some adjustments, could be applied to other crises as well, health or otherwise.


I shared Bob and Kaki Beckett’s story in the last post—Are You Going to Love Me Forever and Ever? After it came out, Bob sent a tip that’s worth passing forward: “Over the last few days I’ve thought about what we do consistently, and I would suggest filling the house with music. Last year I bought an Amazon TAP (portable Bluetooth speaker), hooked it up to our network, and we play music just about every day. Today I played James Taylor for six hours and then switched to some classical music from our CD albums. Music is most relaxing and enjoyable for Kaki. For me, too.”


The next two weeks I’ll be sharing our story with a couple of groups. If you’re in the vicinity, feel free to join us. I’d love to see you.

  • This Sunday, July 16, 10am… The Reserve Worship service. Sunset, SC, north of Clemson and west of Spartanburg. Reserve Worship describes itself as “a multi-denominational gathering.” I was invited by my friend Pamela Smith; we’ve known each other longer than we care to remember, having gone through elementary and high school together.
  • Tuesday, July 25, 7-8pm… Montreat Conference Center. (near Black Mountain, NC, about 15 miles east of Asheville.) I’ll be talking at a Summer Lecture Series, in the Lower Left Bank building. Our children David, Rachel, and Kathryn will be here with their families. My wife Martha grew up in Montreat in the summers, often calling it “my real home.”

I hope you’re enjoying the summer. (That is, if you live in the northern hemisphere. Believe it or not, we have some readers from Australia and elsewhere below the equator.)


P.S. As usual, feel free to forward this post to your friends and family. If you’d like to sign up for my blog, it’s free; just click here. Also, my book, A Path Revealed: How Hope, Love, and Joy Found Us Deep in a Maze Called Alzheimer’s, can be found on Amazon or ordered from any bookstore.