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By Sandi McCann
Reviewed April 2019, by Sara Russell, RN

The memory lapses have become more frequent and pronounced now, and he seems more agitated and confused in the evenings. Though it’s only been six months since the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, you are already noticing these and other changes and it’s hard to know how to help.

It seems that every time you find something that eases the symptoms or anxiety, another challenge arises. That’s true for so many families and I see it every day in my work with older adults and their families throughout Boulder County.

There are so many types of dementia, and while they share some common characteristics, each disease impacts every person, every family in a unique and different way. There is no one right way to manage dementia-related disease, no single approach that works for everyone all of the time.

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But we do know this: A prepared and knowledgeable caregiver can make a significant difference to their loved one’s overall care and comfort. What you do as a family caregiver does matter.

The more a caregiver knows about dementia, the more they can do to help those living with the illnesses.

That’s why we dedicate dozens of hours to training our professional caregivers how to help those living with dementia. Through the HomeCare 100 Professional Caregiver Training program that we developed, our caregivers learn a variety of care and communication approaches. We know some of the same strategies we teach our professionals can help you too.

Here are some of the things I recommend when it comes to helping your loved one (and you!) live better with dementia.

Six Ways You Can Help a Loved One with Dementia

1. Learn about the impacts.

The more you know about how Alzheimer’s and dementia affect the brain and the body, the better able you will be to anticipate and manage any symptoms that emerge. For example, did you know that your loved one’s vision and balance may be altered by Alzheimer’s? The changes that happen in the brain don’t only affect memory, but motor skills and mobility as well. With that in mind, you can make changes in the household by adding lighting or removing area rugs and clutter to minimize the risk of falling and improving comfort and security. The Alzheimer’s Association is a great place to start learning more about dementia.

2. Connect with others.

Nobody can handle this alone – we don’t even ask our professional caregivers to do that. We have an entire care team to back them up. Support groups, classes, and other family members and friends can be a great support and source of information for you. They can offer tips to help you manage the daily routine and serve as a shoulder to cry on – which we all need at times. Connecting with others who understand what you are going through can help ease the stress, depression, and the overwhelm that family caregivers often feel at times. And, that can help you stay healthy and strong so that you can continue caring for your loved one and taking care of your own needs.

3. Stay calm.

When our loved ones are expressing difficult behaviors or crying, yelling, or even blurting out things that are embarrassing or may hurt our feelings, it’s hard not to get upset. But in these difficult moments, it can help to take a deep breath and ground yourself in your moment. Don’t react, just pause for a minute. This kind of mindful response will help you know how to manage without intensifying the high emotions. The pause can also give you time to observe the behavior and see if you can discover the underlying cause.

4. Find ways to work together.

Everyone likes to feel as though they are in control of their own lives, and your loved one is no different, even with dementia. Look for ways to involve your loved one with tasks they can still complete successfully. Sure, their progress might seem frustratingly slow, but it’s the process that matters more than the outcome. It’s the participation that adds meaning to their experience. And stay flexible. Be willing to adapt your style or approach if needed to help them stay involved. For example, some days your spouse might be able to button his shirt, other days he may need help with that, but still be able to brush his teeth. Make it possible for him to do what he still can and help out as needed.

Dr. Peter Rabins, co-author of the 36-hour Day, A Guide to Caring for Those with Dementia and Memory Loss, suggests caregivers actually demonstrate the task they want completed, so that the senior has a visual example of what needs to be done. Then tackle the task step by step. If the older adult is unable to complete the task and becomes increasingly frustrated, step in and do what he can’t, Rabins says.

5. Connect by reminiscing.

As Alzheimer’s progresses, it becomes harder to connect to your loved one. That can be difficult. We miss the kinds of conversation we once had. Yet, reminiscing can still be a way for us to connect. Often, older adults with dementia can still pull memories from their distant past. And it can be soothing for them to share stories of their earlier years. Try turning on some old music, or sharing a memory you have a special time together and see what comes forward for them. Be willing though, to step into their reality. This can be hard because we want to correct or help and bring them back into our world. But, as memories come forward, it’s not uncommon for the senior with dementia-related illness to be rooted in another time and place. If he thinks he needs to go to work, treat that as though it is real, because it feels very real to him. Rather than arguing or explaining or reminding him that he is retired, offer to take him to work right after breakfast, or ask about the job he did. Be open and flexible to whatever he experiences. And then distract with another activity.

6. Stick to a routine.

Establishing and maintaining a routine can help ease anxiety and agitation for those living with dementia and make it easier for you as the caregiver. Plan the day, including when you will do the household chores, serve meals, and help brush her teeth and other personal care tasks. Make sure you build in time for some fun. Play favorite music, or solve crosswords together, or choose an activity you know your family member once loved, like potting small plants or pulling weeds if she used to enjoy gardening. And make sure you build in some time for quiet and rest. This means saving some time for your own respite and self-care, too. I know. Caregivers are often reluctant to do this, but your loved one is counting on you to stay healthy and strong and we want you to find ways to enjoy your life too.  Schedule some personal time each week to rest, or visit with friends, exercise, or take on another activity you enjoy.

We can help.

Our care professionals are often called on to provide respite care for family members who want to keep caring for their loved one and know they need to some time to take care of themselves to do it.

Our care team is trained in dementia care and we are committed to keeping to the routine you’ve already established. We know how important that is. Beyond that, we want to create a meaningful experience for your loved one. So, while you are taking a much-deserved break or enjoying lunch with friends, your loved one will also be engaged in positive interaction.

So, give us a call 720-204-6083. We’re here to care for your loved one, and support you too. Together we can make this difficult path a bit easier.

Sandi McCann is the Founder and President of HomeCare of the Rockies, a provider of non-medical caregivers to older adults throughout Boulder County. McCann is also the creator of the HomeCare 100 Professional Caregiver Training Program, an innovative educational strategy that provides advanced training to non-medical caregivers.

Sara Russell, RN, is a registered nurse, senior care specialist, and caregiver educator.

Dr. Peter Rabins is the co-author of the 36-Hour Day and is a geriatric psychiatrist with extensive experience in dementia care. He founded Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Division of Geriatric Psychiatry.

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