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Expert Tips for Understanding and Coping With Dementia

Dementia is a progressive cognitive disease. In the early stages, it might seem easy to manage, but as time goes on, behavior changes, disorientation and inconsistent sleep patterns can start to affect your loved one’s quality of life. They’ll need a strict daily routine and qualified health care professionals to stay safe, healthy and happy. This is when most families start looking for full-time care in an assisted living or memory care community.

The staff here at Weatherly knows that a dementia diagnosis can be a significant adjustment in your and your loved one’s lives. This article is meant to provide families with helpful strategies and tactics to cope with behavioral symptoms and communication challenges that come with dementia care. We'll cover ways to adjust your communication with your loved one, and we'll also touch on mealtimes and hygiene issues you should expect.   

Adapting Your Communication

As a new caregiver, you will quickly discover that a positive mindset and a humorous attitude can go a long way to helping both you and your family member cope with dementia. To keep these up, follow these tips:

  • Get their attention. One of the side effects of dementia is that your family member may be easily distracted. When you need to have an important discussion, try to limit the noise and activity in the room as much as you can to help them focus. Turn off the TV, shut the door, or move to quieter surroundings. Address your family member with their name. (In advanced stages of dementia, you might need to identify yourself too.) Use non-verbal cues like holding his or her hand or pointing to keep their attention on your conversation. 
  • Set a positive mood. Challenging behaviors such as aggression, wandering, and ignoring caregivers can easily make you frustrated with your loved one. It’s important that no matter how you feel, you speak to your family member in a lighthearted and pleasant tone. Use a smile and physical contact to show your affection and convey that you love them no matter what. This will help them feel safe and secure, and sometimes even prevents them from acting out.
  • Speak clearly. Some types of dementia can significantly impact your loved one’s ability to hear and understand what people are saying. To help them, try to use simple words and sentences as much as possible. If your loved one doesn't understand a statement, repeat your message as a question. Be patient with them and try to continue rephrasing a statement until they understand. 
  • Use the names of people and places. This is one of many non-drug approaches carers can take to help slow the progress of dementia. Using the names of familiar people and places helps your loved one’s brain keep making those connections, which can help them remember more and keep them oriented in their daily life.
  • Ask simple questions. Rather than asking your parent what they'd like to wear today, offer them a choice of two and allow them to point. 
  • Distract and redirect. Unfortunately, aggressive behavior isn’t uncommon in dementia patients. If your loved one begins acting agitated or lashing out, it’s important to distract them from whatever is upsetting and redirect their attention to something soothing. This might be a new topic of conversation or their favorite activity. Whatever interventions soothe their mood should be kept close at hand at all times.
  • Reassure them often. Dementia is confusing and scary for those who suffer from it. They’re missing moments in time which can often make them suspicious and disoriented when they’re lucid. Your family member might accuse you of things that never happened or not believe you when you tell them about their diagnosis. You don't need to convince them of the truth. Instead, focus on their feelings and try to comfort them. Holding their hand, hugging them or praising them for a task will go a long way!
  • Maintain your sense of humor. Don’t forget that personal care means attending to their mental health too. Dementia patients love to laugh and many of them still retain their sense of humor. The more you can get them to laugh, the happier they’ll feel despite the challenges of their diagnosis.

Aside from learning these communication skills, you’ll have to prepare yourself for a few common dementia behaviors that can pose risk factors to your loved one’s health.

Dementia Behaviors to Monitor

One of the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and dementia is frequent mood changes. You may have noticed your family member having rapid mood swings from day to day or even hour to hour. The distraction that works today might not work tomorrow. It’s important to understand each behavior so you can adapt accordingly. 

Repetitive Actions

New caregivers are sometimes surprised and utterly confounded by seemingly bizarre repetitive actions their loved ones adopt. For instance, a family member might empty their dresser every day and stack clothing on the bed. Or they might pull every pot and pan out of the cupboards in the afternoon. They may even take to hoarding small things like bottle caps or leftover food in strange places.

Rather than getting upset with them, try to understand the unmet need they were attempting to fill. For many people with dementia, it's a need for activity.

Understand that your family member filled their days with meaningful activity before their diagnosis. Perhaps they were active in their church or social clubs, made family dinners, visited the salon regularly or went shopping. They don't have the words to describe their need for activity, but you can redirect their energy to a simple but necessary household task — like pairing all the socks in the laundry basket or folding the blankets on the couch. 

Refusing to Eat

Dementia patients often lose some function of their fine motor skills, which can make it difficult to lift a spoon or cut a piece of meat. Although helping them seems like a natural solution, some people don’t like needing assistance for something as basic as feeding themselves. When this is the case, they might refuse to eat altogether.

One solution that many nursing homes use is to cook foods that are easy to spoon and chew. Things like mashed potatoes, soup or even peas are good options. Be patient with your loved one as they eat their food and encourage them to keep trying and do their best. You can always supplement their diet with smoothies or protein shakes to get in the extra nutrients they need while preserving their dignity.

Poor Hygiene

As a new caregiver, you might not think to monitor your loved one’s personal hygiene. But with dementia, people can often forget to bathe themselves, brush their teeth and comb their hair. Poor personal hygiene can lead to other issues such as urinary tract infections or cavities, so it’s important to help your family member stay clean and healthy.

Consider installing safety measures in the bathroom such as grab rails or a sit-in shower so your loved one can still clean themselves. You can help them into the tub a few times a week and make sure they’re brushing their teeth at least once a day. The more you can help remind them, the better chance you have of making personal hygiene part of their regular routine.

Another hygiene issue that comes with dementia is incontinence. Your loved one may have to wear a diaper or, in extreme cases, use a colostomy bag. If you’re providing home care, it will be up to you to make sure they’re changed and cleaned regularly.

Trust Issues 

Paranoia is a common symptom of dementia. It can also be the most troubling and hurtful for the surrounding family if they don't know what to expect. 

Per the Alzheimer's Association "Delusions (firmly held beliefs in things that are not real) may occur in middle-to-late-stage Alzheimer's. Confusion and memory loss — such as the inability to remember certain people... can contribute to these untrue beliefs." The same is true for many types and stages of dementia.

Your loved one with dementia might accuse a close family member of stealing or suspect the police are following him or her. This type of paranoia can be very hurtful and confusing for family members.

Keep in mind that the situation your loved one perceives feels completely real to them. It can sometimes be easier to simply apologize or play along—if the accusations aren’t serious—to avoid further agitating them. They are simply trying to make sense of the confusing world they live in as their cognitive function declines.

Sleep Problems

People with dementia often struggle to sleep. In fact, the Mayo Clinic says sleep disturbances affect up to 25% of people with mild-to-moderate dementia and nearly half of those with severe dementia.

If your loved one is struggling to get enough sleep at night, suggest napping during the day to help them catch up on much-needed rest. You can also put night lights around the house so that when they wake in the night, they can safely navigate the house and you don’t have to worry about them falling or injuring themselves.

Another sleep issue and one of the psychological symptoms of dementia is called “sundowning.” As their cognitive function declines, dementia patients will often start to struggle in the evening hours. They might become confused, agitated or even aggressive as day shifts into night. If this starts to happen, it’s often time to seek professional care.

Creating a Safe Environment for People with Dementia

If you've brought your aging parent or grandparent into your home for better care, we admire your choice! You will need to take special precautions and "senior proof" your home. Think of it like "baby-proofing" but for a much larger person with limited cognition and other health issues. 

Some specific actions to consider:

  • Removing items that can cause a trip and fall, like area rugs or extension cords.
  • Moving medications to a less visible, difficult to reach place (like the top of the refrigerator)
  • Adding a simple lock high on the exterior doors, well above eye level that prevents them from "escaping" at night. 

In addition to making changes for them, don’t be afraid to make changes for yourself as well.

Seek Support

You can find support from other family members, doctors, professional care providers, and caregiver support groups. Caregiver burnout is a genuine concern. It takes a village to care for advanced dementia patients, and Weatherly Inn is here to help. We offer different types of care, like respite care for caregivers who need a few hours or a few days of help and memory care for our long-term residents.

If your loved one's dementia is progressing to the point where it's too much to handle on your own, it may be time to move them into a community that can give them round-the-clock care. Check out our specially designed Memory Care program to see how we can support your needs, and schedule a tour today.


November 25, 2020

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