Caring for an elderly loved one with dementia presents a number of challenges for families and caregivers.
In this article, we’ll explore:
- How to identify the signs of dementia
- What living with dementia is like
- Practical strategies for coping with dementia and memory loss as a caregiver
- How to deal with difficulties sensitively while preserving your own wellbeing
- The treatment options available for dementia care
What is dementia?
Dementia is not one specific disease. Rather, dementia describes a collection of symptoms, specifically memory loss, which affects thinking, behaviour and the ability to perform everyday tasks.
Dementia encompasses a range of brain disorders that impact memory and mental abilities, including Alzheimer’s disease, corticobasal degeneration, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Lewy body dementia, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease dementia, Posterior cortical atrophy, and Vascular Dementia. Each has its own nuances, so it’s important to seek a certified medical diagnosis and become familiar with the particular disease your elderly loved one suffers from.
The early signs of dementia are very subtle and may not be obvious at first. However, the hallmarks of dementia include difficulty remembering recent events, increased confusion, and reduced ability to concentrate. Over time, the elderly loved one may experience drastic personality or behaviour changes, apathy and withdrawal or depression, and lose the ability to perform daily self-care.
As dementia worsens, symptoms may include:
Cognitive symptoms of dementia
- Confusion and disorientation
- Impaired thinking
- A difficulty with speaking or understanding language, and jumbled speech
- Making things up
- Inability to recognise common things
Psychological symptoms of dementia
- Anxiety or nervousness
- Depression, hallucination or paranoia
- Mood swings and irritability
- Restlessness and anxiety
- Sleep disorders
Behavioural symptoms of dementia
- Significant personality changes
- Wandering and getting lost
- Unsteady walking or inability to coordinate muscle movements
- Aggression, such as kicking, biting or shouting
Coping with dementia as a caregiver
Caring for someone with dementia can be emotionally and physically taxing. It’s important to help your elderly loved one receive the support and help they need while taking care of your own wellbeing at the same time.
No matter how much you love them, frustration is a normal, valid emotional response to the challenges of providing 24/7 support to a loved one with dementia. Everyday activities, such as dressing, bathing, and eating, may become sources of frustration for you. However, it is important to remember that for people with dementia, many of their behaviours are uncontrollable reactions to the disease.
Here are our best tips for coping with frustration as a caregiver:
- Communicate clearly and simply. Ask simple, answerable questions one at a time, using simple words and sentences. Speak slowly in a kind, reassuring tone and maintain a positive attitude and body language.
- Listen closely. People with dementia can have great difficulty communicating. Always listen for the meaning and feelings beneath the words with special attention to nonverbal cues and body language.
- Distract and redirect. If your loved one’s confusion makes them feel agitated or upset, try gently changing the subject or moving to a quieter, less stimulating environment where they feel more comfortable.
- Offer gentle reassurance. People with dementia often feel confused and anxious. Sometimes, they will have a confused sense of reality and remember things that never actually occurred. If this happens, avoid trying to convince them they are wrong and instead respond with affection and reassurance.
- Remember the past together. Reminiscing about the past can be an excellent way to help your loved one feel soothed and content. Avoid asking questions that require short-term memory and instead focus on the person’s distant past, which they are more likely to remember.
- Try to make your loved one feel safe. If your loved one experiences confusion about the current place or time, it’s best to reply in a way that will help calm them or make the person feel safest, even if this takes the form of a little white lie.
- Break activities into steps. To help your loved one retain a sense of independence, encourage them to complete the steps they can and gently help with steps they are no longer able to do on their own.
- Encourage healthy sleep habits and physical exercise. Make sure you both receive enough rest and schedule in regular physical activity.
- Ask the doctor about problem behaviour. People with dementia typically cannot tell us directly what they want or need. As a result, troublesome or unusual behaviour usually has an underlying reason. Always think about what the person might be trying to achieve with their unusual behaviour. For example, they might be trying to alleviate painful medication side-effects or want to feel a sense of purpose, autonomy or safety. Whenever possible, try to accommodate behaviour that is not harmful and helps your loved one feel better.
Taking Care Of Your Own Mental Health
- Remember what is and what is not within your power to change. Don’t waste emotional energy trying to change an uncontrollable situation. If you try to change your loved one’s behaviour, you’ll likely encounter resistance. Instead, try to work with your loved one to accommodate any eccentric behaviour, as long as they remain safe.
- Do not take things personally. Sometimes, the dementia may cause your loved one to say hurtful things. Try to maintain your sense of humour and optimism, and remember that this person’s personality may have changed due to chemical processes that are out of their control.
- Try to maintain perspective when faced with aggression. This can often be the most difficult part of caring for someone with dementia: the fact that the person you love has changed. If your loved one exhibits aggressive behaviour, try to identify the cause. What might the person be feeling when they behave this way? Remember to take care of your own wellbeing. Even if what your loved one says upsets you, try to avoid engaging in arguments that make both parties feel worse.
- Seek support. Find nearby support groups or services that can assist you. Seek help from people who can help you develop strategies for coping with the difficult days of caring for a loved one with dementia.
Age-related memory loss can feel bewildering and distressing to both parties. This makes it especially important to find emotional support for yourself, particularly when caring for dementia patients at home.
If you are having trouble supporting a loved one with dementia, it may be time to consider seeking professional help from a dementia care home that specialises in memory care and dementia treatment.
It’s never easy to make this difficult decision. In cases like this, it’s natural to feel pangs of guilt. But ultimately, if you are struggling to cope and feel certain that you have found a professional who is well-equipped to look after your loved one better than you can, it may be in your loved one’s best interests to receive dementia care in a home.
People with dementia have a progressive biological brain disorder that makes it more difficult for them to remember things, think clearly, communicate, take care of themselves, and it can even change a person’s personality and behaviour. As a carer, it’s important to become acquainted with strategies to help you cope with memory loss in your elderly loved one and support them and help them live fulfilling lives while they are living with dementia. Caring for someone with dementia is never easy, but we hope this list of tips reassures you that you can cope with the emotional challenges of caring for your loved one with dementia.
Get in touch today for a free consultation with Bob Morton about how to declutter your elderly loved one’s possessions, and if it is time for the next step, help them move to a dementia care home.
References and Additional Resources
- My Aged Care. Caring for someone living with dementia.
- Dementia Australia. I am a carer, family member, or friend.
- Robinson, L., Clare, L., Evans, K. (2005). Making sense of dementia and adjusting to loss: Psychological reactions to a diagnosis of dementia in couples. Ageing and Mental Health, 9(4), 337-347.
- Dementia Pathways. Coping with the Early Stages of Dementia.
- Family Caregiver Alliance. Caregiver’s Guide to Understanding Dementia Behaviours.
- Alzheimers.net. New Approaches for Dealing With Difficult Dementia Behaviours.