Tips for Alzheimer’s Caregivers

Tips for Easing the Life of Someone with Alzheimer’s

By Shelly Beach, Author and Caregiving Expert

 

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 set up a paint studio.

  • 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 are part of a group. If Mom folded the laundry wrong, thank her and do it over later when she can’t see you. If Dad cleaned the bathroom poorly, thank him with a smile and sincere tone and finish the job later, when he’s not around.

  • Let your loved one feel useful.

    Depression often occurs in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Experts estimate that up to 40% of those with Alzheimer’s struggle with depression. 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 talk to them, especially when answering 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 and watch TV while we watch for him?” Rather than being a lie, this kind of answer diverts and redirects. It does not engage you and your loved one in an argument or you repeatedly answering that Uncle George is dead.  Adults with Alzheimer’s have lost adult reasoning and live in a hazy world, stripped of the ability to recognize and understand 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 all of the options are appropriate. 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 crowded waiting rooms. 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 became combative. When I took her to the doctor, we were taken directly to the exam room to wait (simple solution). And I scheduled appointments and activities for her before noon to minimize her frustration.

  • 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, or gardening. Sensory activities that calm your loved one should be a regular part of their routine. Learn what they enjoy: massage, foot rub, soft fabrics and blankets, a doll or stuffed animal, or something else.

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? Did they 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.

Lean on Me: Letting Go of the Losses

old-couple-holding-handsMany things about my mother’s Alzheimer’s broke my heart. Few things more than the toll the disease took on my father’s spirit.

In the more than twelve years my mother suffered with the disease, my father refused to leave her side. He cared for her in their home until the battle nearly broke his own health. Then he unflinchingly agreed to sell his beloved home and move in with his children, where he and Mom could receive more support.

Later, as Mom continued to decline, he relinquished his “right” to move into an independent living home, but chose instead to live with my mother in a small residential facility for those with Alzheimer’s. She was seldom out of his sight.

There were many things about Mom’s Alzheimer’s Dad struggled to understand. Why a “good Christian woman” who had scolded her children for saying the word “darn” had developed the vocabulary of a sailor in her golden years. Why a woman who had prepared beautiful meals for her loved ones began eating with her fingers. Why had a woman who had always dressed impeccably had become inclined to disrobe in public. No amount of explanation could answer questions like these in my father’s black-and-white engineer’s mind. The enigmas of neurological disease were not a sufficient answer.

All my father ever wanted during those years my mother was ill was to be at her side and ease her suffering. His greatest joy was to hold her hand as he sat or walked beside her.

Then came the day when a hospice nurse called me aside and told me what I already knew. My mother’s gait had become increasingly unstable. She had to be walked slowly and steadily, always in the company of someone who understood how to match her halting and wavering pace. But my father, in his unswerving belief that he could encourage Mom to get better, sometimes tugged her when she balked. Hospice nurses told us we would have to tell him that for Mom’s safety, he could no longer hold her hand and walk her.

I could barely hold back the tears as the hospice nurse broke the news to my father in the most gracious way possible. He stood silent and never asked a single question before he turned away.

For my mother’s safety, we tried to honor the request. But as family members, we also were compelled to honor my father’s commitment to his wife and our mother. Over the next months, caregivers walked my other each day. But as often as possible, dad also walked Mom with her too, clinging to her hand as he always had, while a family member steadied her on the other.

Thank you, Dad, for teaching us to lean into the arms of those we love in our times of loss.