How to support a loved one who’s facing dementia
For Dr. Matthew Beelen, a physician with the LG Health Physicians Alzheimer’s & Memory Care practice at the Lancaster General Health Neuroscience Institute, dementia is both personal and professional. As a geriatrician, he cares for patients and families who are facing the challenges of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia nearly every day. On the personal level, two of his grandparents died of dementia, and another is currently living with the disease.
“The number of families like mine who support loved ones navigating this challenging path is expected to increase,” said Dr. Beelen. “There are, however, actions that can be taken in the early stages of dementia, and as the disease progresses, that allow for the best quality of life possible.”
When is memory loss not a normal part of aging?
Dr. Beelen explains that many people, even some in the health-care field, may mistakenly believe that all symptoms of memory loss and cognitive change are a natural part of growing older. While it is normal to have some mild changes in memory and information processing ability as we grow older, these changes typically do not affect our day-to-day function. Any of the signs below may indicate that something beyond normal aging is occurring and that there may be a need for professional help. Early diagnosis allows for more and better treatment options.
10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease
- Memory loss that affects job skills
- Difficulty performing familiar tasks
- Problems with language
- Disorientation to time and place
- Poor or decreased judgment
- Misplacing things
- Changes in mood or behavior
- Changes in personality
- Loss of initiative
Living with a dementia diagnosis
When someone receives a diagnosis of dementia—Alzheimer’s disease being the most common type—the first reaction is often fear and depression. It’s easy to focus on abilities that are lost or failing.
“Instead, emphasizing the many abilities they have retained, while taking proactive steps to help the individual adjust to changes that are happening or will develop in the future, can have a very positive impact,” emphasizes Dr. Beelen.
What can family and caregivers do?
Caregivers play a vital role in supporting the physical and mental health of the person with dementia. Activity, structure, simplification, and maximizing happiness all combine to preserve a higher quality of life—and for longer.
- Provide a safe environment, including safety locks on doors and grab bars by toilets and showers.
- Assist with time orientation: Use calendars, clocks, and newspapers.
- Label items: This helps provide cues in the home environment.
- Communicate clearly and simply: Communicate a small amount of key information in a quiet area with few distractions. Check to see if you have been understood. Repeat the information.
- Keep tasks basic: Provide only simple tasks, and break them into steps. Complex tasks such as keeping track of finances or preparing an entire meal may need to be done by someone else as dementia progresses.
- Provide a predictable routine. Have a standard order of tasks every day. Put commonly used objects (keys, eyeglasses, phones, purses) in the same place all the time. Maintain a meal and bedtime schedule.
- Help the person stay physically active: Research shows that staying physically and mentally active can slow memory loss. Playing music and games, doing puzzles, and creating artwork help keep the mind strong, as does social activity with family and friends.
- Limit stress to maximize happiness: The brain does not operate as well when emotionally or physically stressed.
- Address hard decisions now: Take care of advance directives, power of attorney documents, living wills, and decisions about retirement funds early on. Plan what will be done when the individual can no longer drive and live alone, or when family members will need more help to provide care.
- Embrace support: Outpatient memory centers, support groups, primary care providers, the county Office of Aging, the Alzheimer’s Association, and elder law attorneys all have resources to share. These professionals can help families address tasks in a way that minimizes distress for both the person with memory loss and the family.