What is Dementia?
Dementia is the term used to describe the symptoms that cause a decline in mental ability, thinking skills and memory that are severe enough to interfere with daily life. These symptoms include impairment with memory, communication and language, the ability to focus and pay attention, reasoning and judgment, and visual perception. Dementia can also cause mood swings and changes in personality, as well as the ability to properly care for oneself.
Dementia is a progressive disease, meaning the symptoms will become worse over time, and is caused by damage to the brain cells that interferes with their ability to communicate properly with each other. Because the brain has distinct regions that control different functions of our bodies, like memory or reasoning, when one area becomes damaged it becomes impossible for it to continue to function correctly. The stages of dementia range from no cognitive impairment, to mild impairment, moderate impairment and severe impairment.
If you notice any of the signs of dementia in your loved one, proper diagnosis is key to ensure the best course of treatment and quality of life.
Caring for Someone with Dementia
Dementia caregivers will face special challenges in regards to caring for a loved one throughout all the stages of the disease. The Alzheimer’s Association recommends getting creative when utilizing your caregiving skills so you can ensure you are adapting to your loved one’s changing needs. It’s important to keep your loved one involved in life, providing opportunities for them to make their own choices so they remain as independent as they can be for as long as possible.
Here are a few dementia care tips to help you cope with caring for someone with dementia:
Having good communication skills will allow for a better relationship with your loved one with dementia, as well as help you better handle difficult situations or behaviors. Speak in a positive, respectful tone, using hand gestures and facial expressions to convey your message. When talking, limit other distractions and noises from TVs or radios. Ask direct, simple questions, speaking clearly and listening to your loved one’s response. If your loved one gets agitated, redirect or distract him or her with a new topic. Keeping a good sense of humor and bringing back memories of happy times are also key to good communication.
Behavior or Personality Changes
Changes in personality or behavior is one of the common signs of dementia, and while we may not be able to change their behavior back to what it once was, we can adapt our own behaviors to this new normal. Speak with their doctor first to ensure the behaviors aren’t a result of pain or medication side effect; some behavior changes, like hallucinations, can be treated. It’s important to remember that your loved one may not be able to properly express him or herself, hence the disruptive behavior. Or, changes in environment can also influence behaviors. Try to put yourself in your loved one’s shoes and make efforts to accommodate, not change, their personality.
It’s not entirely known why those with dementia tend to wander or walk aimlessly; possibly they’re trying to fulfill a need, are seeking help, or are experiencing side effects from medications. Keep your loved one safe by securing doors with locks that require a key or with child-safe door handle covers. Placing signs on doors like “do not enter” can also deter them from leaving the room. Make sure neighbors and friends are aware of any wandering tendencies, and have your loved one wear an ID bracelet at all times.
Sundowner’s Syndrome is a common symptom of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and it refers to the confusion and agitation that tends to set in throughout the evening and nighttime hours. It’s important to create a predictable routine that includes some physical activities in the morning and provide a comfortable, quiet sleeping environment. Limit afternoon activities, naps and large meals.
It’s common for those with dementia to let nutrition fall by the wayside, as it can become difficult for them to remember to eat and drink at all, let alone eat nutritious foods. Plan meals at the same time each day, and make eating as easy as possible. This might mean planning more “finger foods” or planning to cut your loved one’s food for them. It’s also encouraged to sit and eat with your loved one whenever possible, as most seniors find it more enjoyable to eat with others.
Activities of Daily Living
Often, normal living activities like bathing, dressing and grooming can become difficult for those with dementia. It’s sometimes hard for people with dementia to practice good hygiene habits, simply because they’ve forgotten how. Establishing a routine is also key when it comes to activities of daily living; if your loved one prefers showers over baths, make sure to accommodate that wish at the same time each day, as well as setting times for activities like brushing teeth and hair. Choose clothing that is easy to put on; items with zippers or snaps over buttons and laces.
Caring for someone with dementia requires a great deal of patience, as well as the knowledge that there will be good days and bad days. Remember to take care of yourself as well and seek respite care when you find you need a break from caregiving duties.
More dementia caregiver information and support can be found by contacting your local Area Agency on Aging at 800-677-1116.