Visiting a much-loved relative, living with dementia and now in nursing care, I reflected this month on how easy it was for me to interact with her, but how tricky it might seem for someone who hasn’t yet acquired the skills to make such visits happier for all. It’s very like hospital visiting, in many ways – so I thought I’d share a few tips with any of you who might be able to benefit. For the purpose of this article, I’ll call my relative Annie.

Annie is often asleep when I arrive. When she first wakes up, I always wait for her to focus, but smile warmly at her. I say hello, mentioning both her name and mine. Again, I wait – just letting her absorb the key facts that I’m being friendly, I know her and she also knows who I am; I’m usually rewarded with a smile in return.

Next, I try to talk about something nearby that’s familiar to her – something she can see or touch. The idea is that the topic isn’t challenging and allows her to participate, or at least feel she knows what is being talked about. This could be something as banal as saying her drink looks tasty, or the bedcover is pretty – simply allowing her an opportunity to join in with me.

I avoid all conflict – for example, one day, I commented that her milky drink looked interesting and that I wondered what flavour it was; I didn’t directly pose the question – after all, who wants to be interrogated when they might not recall the answer? Annie replied that it was liver! Okay, it definitely wasn’t liver – but did that matter? I asked whether she was enjoying it and she said she was – so we had a happy chat, instead of an awkward one.

Questions can easily reduce conversation – especially in the person asking the questions finds it hard not to keep correcting. If you ask a question that has only one answer, and the person doesn’t know that answer (what did you have for lunch?), that doesn’t make for conversation! Saying you hope they’ve enjoyed their lunch keeps things unchallenging and allows the opportunity for the person you’re visiting to expand on their reply or stick to a simple acknowledgement.

If you have props with you, such as photos, it’s again worth avoiding closed questions; if you ask who’s in a photo, it puts the person under pressure and it can be stressful if they can’t remember. Instead, say you love this photo, or point out something of interest in it, maybe describing the scene or naming someone they know, and see whether any conversation comes from that.

And always – every two or three minutes – please offer the person you’re visiting their drink! Again, no accusations that they’re not drinking or haven’t drunk enough; just offer them their drink in a gentle and happy way and be glad when they take a sip. This article is far too brief to go into proper detail, but the main point is to bear in mind that you’re trying to give happiness to the person you’re visiting, making interactions easy for them, avoiding distress and conflict and perhaps encouraging them to play their part in the chatter. If you come away happy, you may well have made that person happy, too!