When a friend provides care for a parent or spouse with Alzheimer’s disease, she copes with both the challenge of caregiving and the social isolation that often results from handling this huge responsibility.

Be an All-Weather Friend — one who stands by during hard times. Here are eight ways to offer your support and companionship.

Be conscious of the challenges.

When a caregiver wonders how she’ll cope with the changes in her loved one and lifestyle, her optimism and the ability to rejoice in another’s good fortune may be at a low ebb. Hearing details of happy vacation plans or social activities can cause a silent dive into a heightened sense of personal loss. You can step freely in and out of the Alzheimer’s world. Your friend cannot. She needs your ongoing compassion and sometimes your restraint. One caregiver called AD “a dirty trick” that robbed her of the retirement she and her husband had been anticipating for more than thirty years.

Build in some extra time.

The unpredictability of AD makes time management difficult for a stay-at-home caregiver. From the start, leaving the house is not a simple turnkey operation, and unanticipated holdups are par for the course. Allow a cushion of time in your planning, or call ahead. The caregiver may need to opt out at the last minute, so have alternative plans in mind for the time you’ve set aside.

Realize the realities.

Should the caregiver mention a difficulty or lost ability early on that doesn’t seem so significant from your perspective, think about the broader implications and don’t make light of it. A person with AD who can no longer bake a seven-layer cake will in time be unable to button her own blouse. No one suffers for lack of a fancy dessert (no need to point that out), but the future implied by such relatively minor losses is grim.

Add an hour to your errand—and do hers, too.

Identify a task you have in common with your friend, such as grocery shopping or buying a gift. While you are running the errand for yourself, do it for the caregiver, too. If you have time and are going to be grocery shopping anyway, take your friend’s list along. If you’re going to the pharmacy, call and ask if you can pick up her drugstore supplies.

Write a meaningful letter.

A friend’s written memories can return a person with dementia to her loved one, if not literally then at least repeatedly. There’s something comforting about being able to tuck a thoughtful letter away in your bedside table to unfold and read in the middle of sleepless nights. When writing to the caregiver, try to restore in your words and recollections a part of the person she has lost.

Share some inspiration.

Do you go to the same synagogue or church? Video the worship service and greetings from the congregants. The caregiver can watch when the patient is sleeping, and it can brighten a lonely evening.

Plan a “Baggie banquet.”

Have you ever thought about how many one-dish recipes could be made entirely of ingredients chopped or measured in advance and transported to someone’s kitchen in multiple Baggies? For example, you could bring together a caregiver with a preheated oven, one friend with a ready-made pizza crust and bottled sauce, and another with Baggies full of shredded mozzarella and toppings. In about thirty minutes you’ll have an inexpensive, easy dinner to share. Add a carton of ice cream, maybe a glass of wine, and the latest personal news, and you’ve restored connection between a homebound caregiver and the passing social scene.

Keep the invitations coming.

Continue to invite your friend out; don’t be dissuaded by frequent refusals. Assume, unless you’re told otherwise, she appreciates being considered and will try to be available when possible. Make it clear whether the patient is included: “We’re having a few people over for a backyard barbeque. Can you and Terry come? You can come alone, too. Either way is fine, but we’d miss seeing Terry.” Or: “Can you join us for a ladies night out? Will Terry be okay by himself for an evening?”

Alzheimer'sDr. Mary M. Cail is author of a new book, The All-Weather Friend’s Guide to Alzheimer’s Disease: Staying Connected to Loved Ones with Dementia & Their Caregivers (TrueWind Books, 2011), a quick read that’s a compassionate and compelling guide, full of practical strategies, tips, tools, and true stories—based on experiences and wisdom shared by people on the frontline of Alzheimer’s disease, as patients and caregivers.