Dealing with Dementia
Professor June Andrews RMN. RGN. FRCN. An inspirational woman whose impact on healthcare in the UK, and further afield, is profound.
If you are concerned about someone in your family might be suffering with memory loss you will find her book ‘Dementia: The One-Stop Guide’ particularly helpful as it offers practical advice for families, professionals, and people living with dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.
What is the one bit of advice you’d give a family affected by dementia?
When people ask me, it is hard because there’s lots you could do to make things better.
However, if I really focus on something that is brilliant if you can manage it, it’s this. Don’t argue.
People with dementia often say things that are not right. “No one ever comes to visit me!” says one, when you know that they get someone every day. “I’m just searching for my tea pot!” when you know they broke it and you saw it in the bin. “Dad’s upstairs.” And the funeral was two years ago.
You want to argue. It’s embarrassing if someone implies that you’ve been neglecting them. You want to remind them what happened to the pot and stop a fruitless search. And of course you feel you must remind them that Dad is dead.
In dementia, you often don’t help if you try to correct or argue. The person may not believe you and behave as if you’re lying to them. They might be embarrassed because they realise they’ve made a mistake. If someone has passed away, it won’t be like reminding them. It will be as if they are hearing it for the first time. A devastating blow, followed by grief. You will be left with the distressed behaviour that you unwittingly caused.
So what should you do? Well, it depends on the person and your relationship. Even if she’s had a lot of visits, the lady feels lonely, as if she hasn’t. Work with the feelings and not the truth. Say, “Well, I’m here now. Let’s have tea!” With fruitless searching, distraction works. Say, “Oh, I’d prefer an instant coffee. Where are the mugs?” Secretly produce an identical replacement teapot if possible. Talk warmly about the dead person, and then move the conversation on. Distraction is good, and some people are brilliant at it.
Last point. Some incredible things people with dementia say are actually true. So don’t ignore what they’re saying if it is worrying, even if you’ve learned to avoid contradicting.
What can you do to help your loved one?
A dementia diagnosis can be shattering. The worst part is thinking that there is nothing that can be done. There is no cure, but lots of things you can try to slow the decline for as long as possible. Here are four ideas based on research.
1 EXERCISE. Research show that exercise makes a difference. You can see why. The food for your brain is oxygen and exercise improves the circulation and brings more oxygen to where it matters. We all know how exercise can improve your mood, and that’s really needed now. It does not have to be too vigorous. A good walk in the fresh air with the dog, a swim, or even some chair exercises – do what you can.
2 WATER. If someone with dementia gets dehydrated it can make matters much worse, so make sure that they get plenty to drink. Of course, water is best, but it can be a bit boring. Tea, juice, anything that you enjoy will help. Except of course alcohol. It is not banned, but you must be careful about mixing it with other medications. One glass of red wine or champagne a day is said to be good – but if you can’t stick to one, leave it alone.
3 STIMULATION. A person with dementia who is left to get lonely and bored will go downhill fast. How much stimulation depends on the person, and the risk of overstimulation is that it will cause distress and agitation. However, the research says that without company and meaningful activity, distress and agitated behaviour will increase. Friends and family will know from experience what is likely to work best – music, radio, conversation…or even just being somewhere to watch interesting things happening.
4 LIGHT. If you are going to make any change at all in the home, just increase the light level. In dementia, people sometimes can’t remember where things are, but if you increase the light level, they may be able to see them. It’s that basic. Aging eyes need a higher light level to see. And exposure to daylight in the morning helps adjust the body clock for a better night’s sleep.