Most people recognize that Alzheimer’s disease causes memory loss. However, it may be more difficult to understand that Alzheimer’s also deeply influences one’s emotions, mental processing, and physical capabilities. As our loved one progresses through the disease, we and other family members and caregivers must begin to focus on helping our loved one live in the moment, because they lose the capability to reason and live beyond the immediate.
Alzheimer’s experts offer a number of recommendations for how to ease the life of someone living with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. These tips are intended to lower agitation, enhance focus and communication, and give your loved one a greater sense of peace and safety. Alzheimer’s can be a terrifying disease; patients live without an awareness of where they are, why they are in a strange place, and who the people around them are.
- Keep people with Alzheimer’s active and engaged. Cognitive and sensory stimulation is important for them. Check to see if your community offers adult day care for those with dementia programming. Involve them in simple family chores. Create a small indoor garden for them to tend, or enroll them in a community exercise program for those with dementia.
- Focus on process and not results. If your parent does something incorrectly, don’t correct them. If your father begins eating with his fingers, let him. People with dementia need to feel that they are accepted and loved without judgment, and part of a group. If Mom folded the laundry wrong, thank her and do it over later when she can’t see you.
- Let your loved one feel useful. Depression often occurs in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Your loved one is aware of their illness and feels as if they are no longer useful. Allow them to contribute—cooking, simple home repair jobs, helping with shopping or laundry, emptying the dishwasher, etc.
- Never argue. Always agree and meet them where they are. Join them in the moment, in their reality, when you respond to their difficult questions. For instance, “I haven’t seen Uncle George (who has been deceased for 7 years), but why don’t we get a snack and sit here for a while and watch for him?” Rather than being a lie, this kind of answer is like responding to a three year-old with an age-appropriate reply. Adults with Alzheimer’s lose adult reasoning and slip away into a hazy world stripped of the ability to see reality. Telling them the “truth” is often cruel and serves no purpose.
- Give simple instructions. Offer no more than three options, and be sure than any of the options would be okay. If you have a preferred option, list it last because the last option is the most likely to be chosen.
- Never ask, “Do you remember?” Always tell your loved one who you are and what your name is. If you reminisce with them, allow them to contribute information, but don’t ask them questions they may not have answers to. Asking questions only provides an opportunity for frustration. If you want to know what they’d like to have for lunch for instance, offer two or three options at a time.
- Avoid things that could be upsetting. For many dementia patients, this means loud crowds, like basketball games, parties, or receptions. For my mother it also meant being in large crowds. Many dementia patients also deal with Sundowning Syndrome, which means that agitation worsens in the late afternoon. My mom’s behavior quickly degraded after 4:00 in the afternoon, and she often showed signs of aggression. The world is a confusing, frightening place for people with dementia, and anger and aggression are natural responses. Imagine not knowing where you are, why you’re there, what you should do, who you’re with, or what’s going to happen to you. Then add physical discomfort.
- Learn what soothes. This might be music (hymns, vintage music, boogie, etc.), looking at pictures (children’s faces are often favorites), rocking or snuggling a life-like doll, old TV shows like I Love Lucy, gardening, etc.
It’s also helpful to learn about any events from your loved one’s past: Were they abused? Attacked by a pet or animal? Confined or incarcerated? Suffer prolonged illness? Lose a parent or sibling in childhood? Experience a near drowning? These events could become triggers for fear as their illness progresses.
Our goal as caregivers is to soothe the suffering of Alzheimer’s and dementia. This means doing all we can reasonably do to safeguard our loved ones’ physical, mental, and emotional well-being and to love them as we would want to be loved ourselves.
What tips can you share with us from your caregiving experience?