My grandmother is over 90 years old, and lives in a retirement home. She can't do anything alone anymore, almost not even move, and basically she is in bed all day, almost only sleeping.

There are days where she can answer yes/no question with her head, but some days she doesn't do even that. My strategy so far has been greeting her, asking her if she is well (in part to test if she answers or not), asking her if she knows who I am, and telling her I am her granddaughter.

When my mother is with me we talk to each other, or on some days I just explain some stuff to my grandmother. But today I didn't know what to say, or if it was ok I caress her on her head. I want to be good company for her, but I just feel lost without any feedback.

What are good strategies to be with her? If I don't have words, does it bring something if I just stay silently with her? Is there something else I can do to be good company to my grandmother?

EDIT to update: End of last year my grandmother passed away. Your advice helped me to talk to her and be as a good company as possible while she still lived. For this I am really grateful to your kind words and advice, so thank you for helping me helping her.


8 Answers 8


Try to get someone to explain to you her ability to hear (she should have had her hearing tested), her ability to respond, etc. Ask if some of this is depression. Someone should explain this to you. Read about dementia, if that's her diagnosis. What kind does she have?

To answer your question specifically; did she have a favorite writer or poet? Did she read a lot? What did she do when she was active?

I don't know your grandmother's diagnosis or her ability to understand things happening around her. But if she loved, say, Emily Dickinson, read her poetry by Emily Dickinson. If she liked Maya Angelou, lucky you! If she loved Dan Brown, you have my sympathies, but read her excerpts of Dan Brown books. If she didn't read, you might read short stories to her. If she was a gardener, bring in a book of gardens and show her the pictures and discuss them. You get the idea.

You can also listen to music together. Her favorites, or from her past.

You can tell her stories involving her and you. Or tell her stories about your day, or about her other relatives. Hold her hand as you talk. Let her know you're there. Don't feel you can't caress her or kiss her on the forehead as you take your leave.

Ask the nurses to tell you how she behaved after a visit. If she seemed consistently upset, change the format of the visit. If she was same or seemed more peaceful, great!

Good luck. Your heart is in a good place. You're doing this for two people: her and you.

Edit: This is based on experience and what we are "taught" (?) in medicine. At some point, we're not taught anymore except by experts about once a year (CME), but self-taught (reading of journal articles.) If it bears enough fruit, it becomes "standard of care". This stuff is standard of care in geriatric medicine.

  • 2
    May I recommend the music suggestion? Particularly things from her youth that she liked. If you want some scientific basis for this, look up research about music therapy.
    – nijineko
    Oct 22, 2017 at 19:56
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    My grandmother is in a similar position with her aunt, who is communicative but remembers little from one day to the next, and the book of photos idea works very well with her too. Whether the photos are of her own family and places she's been or simply the sorts of things she likes, flipping through it and talking about what they show is a good pastime for visitor and visitee.
    – Euchris
    Oct 22, 2017 at 23:22
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    If she is religious, and if the OP is comfortable with it, religious texts and music are a particularly good option.
    – DLosc
    Oct 23, 2017 at 21:22
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    My aunt loved the book of photos, with labels saying who everyone is, so 'your granddaughter daisy'
    – WendyG
    Apr 19, 2018 at 12:01

It sounds like you're doing things right. My grandmother was in a similar state, towards the end, when she was still with us. We would visit; tell her about the family, her grandchild, and great-grandchildren. Pretty much we talked to her about the things that she used to ask about when she still had the strength and memory to do so.

Sometimes when we ran out of things to talk about we would read one of her books to her. She had been a grade school teacher and librarian, so reading and teaching children to read was a huge part of her life.

Sometimes we would just sit with her, just trying to let her know that she wasn't alone. I can't really say that she knew we were there, but it still felt like the right thing to do.

I once heard a hospice worker being interviewed on the radio. The one thing that struck me that I've carried with me as a sort of universal truth was this:

Regardless of a person's religion or culture the two questions they have at the end of it all are "Did I love well and was I well loved?"

By being present you're answering those questions for her. You're showing that she was well loved and that she loved well. Keep up the good work.


My grandmother had dementia for a couple of years before she passed away and it was heartbreaking to watch her mentally decline when she had been so active and lively previously. I commend you for looking to spend time with your grandmother when she can't respond to you.

When my grandmother grew older, but still could communicate, she expressed frustration at not being able to continue her hobbies. She loved to garden, sew, bake, and read her bible. As time went on, she took great delight in doing her hobbies "through" me, where I would sew/bake and she would give me instruction, and later just enjoy watching me.

She took great delight in watching me do things that she used to enjoy doing herself. I used these things to remain connected to her even when she couldn't communicate with me and when she wasn't living with us anymore. I'd visit her and take things with me to show her. My latest sewing project, a flower I picked in the garden, some cookies I baked that were her recipe. Even though she couldn't see, she would hold the things close to see them better and feel the texture of the material in her fingers, she'd smile at the bright colors of the flowers or fabric I'd chosen. Since she couldn't speak, or even hear, well I tried to use her other senses too.

So even if you can't communicate with her, find out what she liked before. What were her hobbies? What did she do with her time? What was her favourite colour? Speak to your family members and ask them about who she is, and then see if you can take her something related to those things. A bright flower from the garden, a book with big pictures of her favourite hobby. Choose big, bright, happy, tactile objects that she can recognise, that remind her of what she used to do, and talk to her about them.

I look back with such happy memories with my grandmother and I so commend you on taking the time to spend time with yours even though this relationship can feel very one-sided. I'm very glad I spent time with mine when I had the chance.


Definitely you are helping just by being there. Not only are you helping her, you are sending a strong message to the staff that someone cares about your grandmother and is looking out for her. Touching her is a good thing, especially if you did when she was more active. You can tell her about your day, and about your plans. What are you going to do tonight? What happened yesterday that was funny or sweet? What's going on with some people she might remember or want to hear about? Even what's going on in the news and how does it make you feel?

You might want to offer her other ways of communicating. For example you can put Yes and No on a card and put it near her hand so she can move her hand towards one or the other, or even just stare at one or the other. If she can see, this might be easier than moving her whole head. Plus you can put other words on there instead of asking only yes/no questions.

Some people put on music from an appropriate era in the person's life (for my father in law, it was from the 30s and 40s) and just sit with them while they listen to it. Some people read a book to the person, which gives you words to say and if it's an interesting book, you may enjoy that. You could do a chapter each time you visit.

I know that awkward feeling of not knowing what to say and not knowing if you're helping. But looking back, I know that consistently visiting, and consistently interacting, did help. Who knows how much more time your grandmother has, but you're making that time more pleasant for her. Good for you.


My grandmother has Alzheimers. So questions upset her. She couldn't remember the words to respond. So instead we did statements. I would say "You look lovely today." That is not a question and not something she needs to answer. I told her what was happening with the family and about my day. If she was lucid and started a conversation good, if not okay.


Hand/wrist massages go down a treat whatever a person's age, or mental state, and can have fantastic positive impact on the rest of the body (never mind the soul!) It also provides extended physical contact, which has health & psychological benefits, and is something the elderly often miss - even if they do not do so consciously.

I'm sure there are a plethora of resources available online if you want to get some mad massage skills in the chamber before you drop it on her, but it's quite hard to go wrong, and this really is one of those situations where the thought (well, the act, but you get the picture) is the most important thing. Of course, the other thing hand massage has going for it is you can practice on your big bad self - anytime, anywhere.

Good luck generally - I have personal experience of relatives in similar situations, and regret perhaps not doing everything right, or at least doing everything I could have to help. I think just the fact that you're being proactive probably means you're well on your way :)


I volunteered in a Memory Care area for about a year.

One thing that the old ladies there appreciated was presence. What you do doesn't need to be earth-shattering. What it does need to do is be present.

@anongoodnurse has some really good ideas. With memory care, it's all about what they know and remember. Music can evoke a lot of memories, even if she may no longer know what's going on.

Talk to her. Tell her about your day. Share your memories with her. One thing that the old ladies loved was, when I said good-bye for the evening, I would put a hand on their shoulder and tell them a heartfelt "good night" and thank them for allowing me to come. They seemed to like that. I honestly think that a loving touch is really missing in these care settings. Hold her hand! Stroke her hair! Even if she's non-communicative, your sitting there and reading a book is a ministry of presence. And for the most part, these care facilities don't have as much presence as we'd like.

In the end, aside from abusing her, there's really much you can do that's blatantly wrong. The nursing staff can help answer questions - they may have seen some things that she likes that you don't know about.

I applaud your desire to do this and hope my kids/grandkids are like this when the sands leave my hourglass.


I would post as a comment but I felt this needed a bit more highlighting, it was prompted by anongoodnurse's suggestion of:

You can also listen to music together. Her favorites, or from her past.

This reminded me of a video I had seen years earlier:

Old Man In Nursing Home Reacts To Hearing Music From His Era

There are lots of similar videos in the suggestions also, some of which may just bring a tear (of happiness) to your eye ;).

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