When you care for someone who's living with dementia, there's no simple set of answers for every situation. These tips don't promise a 'one size fits all' solution, but may offer helpful guidance for your care of loved ones.
Dementia is the name for a group of symptoms that commonly include problems with memory, thinking, problem-solving, language and perception. It's caused by different diseases that affect the brain, and although Alzheimer's disease is the most common of these, other common types of dementia include vascular dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies.
Dementia is becoming more and more of a concern to many individuals and their families. In England alone, more than 700,000 people are now living with dementia and this number is expected to reach two million by 2050. It is now recognised as the leading cause of death in England and Wales.
Sadly, for those caring for someone living with dementia, there are no simple answers or magic tricks to help you deal with all the difficulties it presents. However, by learning what works for the person you're caring for - and trying out strategies that are appropriate for their stage of dementia - you can help them to lead a positive life.
Carers need care too
If you're reading this because you're caring for a family member with dementia, you may well recognise a lot of familiar information - but one key piece of advice that often gets overlooked is that you need to care for yourself too and protect yourself emotionally. Research has noted increases in rates of depression among carers of people with dementia. Do be sure to also look into ways you can get help and support for yourself.
- Create a calm environment for yourself and the person living with dementia is of fundamental importance. In the long run, it can help with a range of dementia-related issues such as anxiety, depression, aggression and sleeplessness. A relaxed carer helps the person you're caring for to feel more relaxed too. So what simple things can you do to make an environment more relaxing and help you to care for your companion or family member more easily?
- Play relaxing music - music from a particularly memorable era can be pleasant for people to hear in the background while they go about their day.
- Make a 'nest'. Having a comfy, safe place to go to when they're feeling stressed, frustrated, anxious or angry can help to calm down people living with dementia. Making a warm space with blankets and putting it in a place with less noise can create a soothing escape.
- Remove clutter - decluttering a home means there are less potential hazards and when a home is clean and tidy, it feels light and airy. Try using nice smelling scents to give rooms a fresh smell too.
- Vary the lighting. During the day, it's a good idea to have a light room so that people can see where they're walking and can feel uplifted by natural light. During the night, if they are struggling to sleep, making their room dark and comfortable is a solution - but having night-lights in place is practical too, so falling is minimised.
- Provide a stimulating environment If you have fun dementia activities and distractions available, then the person you are caring for is less likely to become anxious or wander.
- Animal therapy has been proven to reduce stress. Stroking a dog or cat can be a very relaxing experience and can provide a way to communicate and express feelings.
- Multisensory therapy is really useful to incorporate into daily life. This means that you should encourage people to taste, touch, smell, see and hear so that their senses are stimulated. It helps with cognitive function and general health and wellbeing.
- Validate their feelings, instead of challenging them or correcting them can prevent the person from becoming more anxious or fearful. They could be hallucinating or getting confused, but if you argue with them or try to prove them wrong it can make them more frustrated. Validating feelings, comforting the person, accepting their reality and then trying to distract them is a good method.
- Being tactile can help to calm people down. Gentle massage and calming words can be an enjoyable experience and make them feel comforted and reassured.
- Eat, drink and sleep - making sure the person with dementia eats, drinks and sleeps properly is important. There can be issues with these functions at every stage of dementia; so for example, it's not realistic to expect uninterrupted sleep. But trying to facilitate good eating and good sleeping is a positive step and can maintain health and wellbeing. Just a few tips for sleeping are comfortable bedding, having a bed close to the toilet, correct temperature and sticking to a routine.
- Identifying triggers - If someone with dementia becomes violent then it's crucial that you seek help, but it's advisable that you try and identify triggers of aggression. Aggression could be caused by underlying pain, so reviewing their medication with a doctor or having a check-up is recommended.
- Exercise is one of the best ways of dealing with the many challenges that dementia brings. Gentle exercise like taking a walk or throwing a ball can distract, use up energy and relax.
- Life-story work is a great way to connect with someone living with dementia. Talking about their life or making a scrapbook they can look back on when they're anxious can help to give them familiarity. It's important that you let the person guide the conversation so you don't guide them towards uncomfortable or frustrating memories.
Adapt advice to your situation
Some of the symptoms of dementia we've mentioned are commonplace and affect many people - and they can vary depending on what stage they're at. They are obstacles that can cause distress, confusion and fear, but there are ways of managing these symptoms and you'll find ways to alleviate them as you learn more about dementia.
It's important to note that everyone lives with dementia differently, and it's up to you to decide what works best for you and your companion.
This post was written by Active Minds, an award-winning product design company that creates meaningful activity products for people with dementia.
NHS - Guide to Living with Someone With Dementia
Dementia UK - a charity providing specialist dementia support for families through its Admiral Nurse service
Alzheimer's Society - UK charity that provides information and support, funds research and creates lasting change for people affected by dementia.
The Alzheimer Society of Ireland - support service and advocacy charity for people with dementia and those who care for them