Caring for someone with dementia is a practice in defying logic. After all, you cannot use logic with someone who cannot connect one minute to the last and does not have a continuum between hours and days. When caring for a loved one with dementia, the best strategy is to toss logic aside and think of the relationship like riding a wave. Go with the ups and downs and meet your loved one where he or she is mentally and emotionally. The rest of the world doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is the emotion of the moment that needs to be encouraged, soothed or redirected. Here are the ten helpful dementia caregiving strategies.
1. Be versatile. It would be nice if dealing with dementia was a straightforward activity. You do “x”, and your loved one does “y.” Unfortunately, it’s rarely that easy. When it comes to your role as a caregiver, intuition is often more important than logic. You may not be able to reason with your loved one. It’s fruitless to remind your mom or dad what you just talked about a few minutes ago. There are many challenges in dementia caregiving, one of which being that dementia will often hinder the ability to think in a rational manner. So, if your loved one gets upset, redirect their attention. If they repeat a question, just answer it. If they are confused, simplify the issue at hand. Remember that the real world often doesn’t apply or matter when a person lives with dementia. To be an effective caregiver without losing your cool, make your mantra “I am flexible.”
2. Take the path of least resistance. Except for meals and medication administration, you are not going to be able to stick to a schedule for someone with dementia. Instead, you may find that the best way to care for dementia is to dial into the feelings and needs of the moment.
For example, let’s say your loved one usually eats a full breakfast at 8 AM. Then, along comes an incident that is upsetting or frustrating. Instead of the usual toast, cereal, and coffee, you may only be able to successfully serve a bowl of banana slices. Know that that is OK. Your ability to remain calm and take the path of least resistance will benefit your loved one and is one of the most important strategies for effective dementia caregiving.
3. Be an advocate. When you attend doctor’s appointments with your loved one, be an advocate for him or her. Your loved one’s primary care physician is not going to be as acutely aware of which stage of dementia mom or dad is in. So, by all means, speak up. Do not hesitate to monitor the care your loved one is receiving. Beware of providers who may unknowingly speak too loud or talk to you instead of your loved one. As long as your loved one has the ability to respond, it is important that they are afforded the respect of being spoken to directly. Use your voice to ensure that your loved one can retain his or her dignity.
4. Involve your loved one in daily activities. Until there is evidence that your loved one cannot do something, involve them. Mental and physical stimulation is positive and beneficial. As you engage your relative in daily activities, observe how he or she is performing. If the activity is a struggle or a source of frustration you will know to avoid it the next time. As long as your loved one can help to fold laundry, rake the lawn, or help you prepare meals, encourage them to do so. These everyday activities will create easy conversation while helping your loved one to stay active.
5. Ride the roller coaster. In other words, get real about the ups, downs, twists and turns of dementia. There are some moments when your loved one will be lucid. Treasure the times when your parent recalls a fun memory you can enjoy together. Also know there may be other times when he or she will struggle to even remember your name. These are all normal symptoms of dementia. Try your best to go with it. You can’t fight it and you can’t change it. You can only respond calmly and with love.
6. Stay on top of personal hygiene. As dementia progresses, your role as a caregiver will evolve, too. You might see your mom or dad’s behavior change when it comes to personal hygiene. They could become anxious about taking a bath or shower. They might be suffering from incontinence or need assistance using the toilet. Perhaps they’ve lost interest in life-long habits such as enjoying a daily shower or other personal care activities.
Maybe they are feeling a bit unsteady and are afraid of slipping in the tub, or they might be bashful about undressing in front of one of their children. Do your best to figure out what’s troubling them. Then try to be as sensitive as possible. Ask them how you can help. If they seem unsure, suggest alternatives. Above all, let them know you are there for them and will keep them safe.
7. Get a good night’s sleep. Dementia can do a number on one’s internal clock. People living with Alzheimer’s might have a fitful night’s rest or wake up several times during the night. Waking up too early sometimes leads to feeling disoriented. Your parent might even roll out of bed and get dressed, thinking that morning has arrived.
Sleeping patterns often change over time and it’s possible your loved one will return to a better night’s sleep. In the meantime, make sure your family member is experiencing enough daylight and is as active as possible during the day. It’s fine to take a nap but be mindful about sleeping too long. Create a cut-off time for things like coffee or a glass of wine in the evening. Try placing a clock by their bedside that indicates whether it’s night or day. Check out the curtains to be certain light doesn’t flood the room when dawn arrives. Some people find blackout curtains can help. However, be sure there’s a nightlight so your mom or dad doesn’t stumble in the dark.
Should sleeping issues persist, consult with their doctor. If your parent consistently cannot tell the difference between day and night they may have sundowning syndrome.
8. Practice self-care. Caring for a person with dementia is fraught with grief, pain, and frustration. So it’s important to remember to give yourself a pat on the back and understand that dementia caregiving is one of life’s mightiest struggles. It is also a time of great love and the pursuit of simplicity. Don’t forget to look in the mirror and acknowledge your many acts of kindness.
Remember, your personal needs are every bit as important as the welfare of your loved one. The importance of self-care for family caregivers is often overlooked and can make a big difference in the care and support that you give to your loved one. Taking time for yourself will boost mental health, help you side-step resentment, and make you a better caregiver.
Also, don’t forget to ask for help. You shouldn’t shoulder this burden by yourself. A family member or good friend can step in and give you a much-needed break. You can also look into hiring a professional caregiver. Even a few hours off each week can make a huge difference.
9. Plan for the future. Whether you’re just beginning your role as a dementia caregiver, or have been at it for some time, it’s always a good idea to keep your eyes on the road ahead. For starters, tackle any financial or legal matters sooner rather than later. Does your parent have a will or trust? Are their social security, savings, and retirement plan in order? Have you set up their bills to be paid automatically? Does someone have power of attorney for healthcare as well as financial matters?
Because we are likely to be feeling emotional about mom or dad’s health, these nuts-and-bolts details sometimes get laid aside. Do yourself and your relative a favor and get this handled.
10. Keep these suggestions in mind:
• It’s a long race so pace yourself
• Remember these magic words: “The doctor said…”
• Arguing will blow up in both of your faces
• Learn to find the humor in challenging situations
• Talk slowly and wear a big smile
• Synch your sleeping schedule to their schedule
When all else falls away, the memories of loved ones and careers, all that left is love in its simplest form. As a caregiver, the greatest strategy for dementia caregiving is to be present and share the experience together. Learning how to communicate with a loved one with dementia can reduce the learning curve, and lastly, dementia care with love and patience will go a long way.
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