Understanding and Supporting a Person with Dementia  

June 10, 2021

Understanding what it is like to live with dementia can help you support someone with the condition. Living with dementia will affect a person's feelings, thoughts, and responses. It is important to recognize and respond to the person's emotional needs.

Emotions and Feelings

People with dementia often experience changes in their emotional responses. They may have less control over their feelings and how they express them. For example, someone may be irritable, or prone to rapid mood changes or overreacting to things. They may also appear unusually uninterested in things or distant. 

These changes are often difficult for caregivers to deal with. It can help if caregivers remember that they are partly caused by damage to the person's brain. Someone may react more emotionally to a situation than might be expected (e.g. by becoming tearful or agitated) because some of their factual memories or ability to think clearly about the situation have declined. It is important to look beyond the words or behaviors you can see to the feelings that the person might be trying to express. Strong emotions may also be caused by unmet needs. Caregivers should try to work out what these needs are and meet them where possible.

Creating Purposeful Days 

People with dementia might feel anxious, depressed or frustrated about not being able to do the things they used to. It may help to think about ways a person can still do things they enjoy in the community and in the home. Some may not have the capabilities to continue with their activities, so it is helpful to teach them to adapt.  Here are some activities you can do together: 

  • Baking or cooking 
  • Doing laundry 
  • Going for a walk outside to the park or the museum 
  • Playing cards
  • Exercising

Creating Routines with a Purpose

Setting a daily schedule for dementia patients not only helps them cope with the challenges of short-term memory loss but can also benefit dementia caregivers. When coming up with a regular routine for someone with dementia, the overarching goal should be to tailor it to their preferences and past activities as much as possible. 

Aim to incorporate enjoyable aspects of their personal routine between more challenging or mundane activities of daily life such as bathing, dressing, toileting and eating meals. This will help break up the day and make it more pleasant for both of you. If your loved one functions best at certain times of day, be sure to schedule the most demanding tasks during these windows and allow for plenty of time to rest afterwards.

Redirecting people with a purpose allows for goals to be accomplished. For example, if they need to have their hands washed, demonstrate how to do it while doing something they enjoy-like singing! 

Focus on Their Strengths

It is important to identify their likes, dislikes, strengths, and lack of abilities. Focus on what they can do and allow them to complete those tasks while providing support. This can be done by asking if they need help. For example, if a person wants to shave, offer to help.

Offering choices allows people with dementia to make their own decisions and promotes empowerment and independence. For example, if one wants to wear a hat, ask “Do you want to wear the blue hat or red hat?” 

Tips to Support the Person's Emotional Responses

  • Try to understand how the person with dementia feels
  • Acknowledge how they are feeling and show them you are there for them 
  • Give them time to process their emotions
  • Do not dismiss a person's worries - listen and show them that you are there for them
  • Try to enjoy the moment and try not to spend too much time thinking about what the future may or may not hold

Tips to Support the Person with Dementia to Maintain Self-esteem 

  • Offer the person plenty of praise and encouragement - celebrate successes and focus on positives
  • Avoid harsh criticism or belittling comments
  • Ensure people have time to do the activities they enjoy and that give them purpose
  • If a person makes a mistake, try to be as supportive as possible
  • Help people to maintain existing social relationships and form new ones. This can be done by facilitating joint activities with friends and family, joining hobby groups, and encouraging conversation
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