Age-related mental decline can be one of the hardest things to cope with, both for the person experiencing it, as well as those caring for them.
One of the most common forms of mental decline in the elderly is dementia.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is a broad term used to describe the various mental diseases that affect one’s ability to think and remember things. Most types are progressive, meaning symptoms gradually get worse over time. One of the most common types is Alzheimer’s, which accounts for roughly 60 to 80 percent of cases. Vascular dementia is the second most common, which more commonly occurs after a stroke.
The condition is the result of damaged brain cells, which prevent them from properly communicating with each other. This can lead to short-term memory loss, difficulty focusing, and impaired judgment.
Supporting those with dementia
Taking care of someone with dementia can be very challenging. Their ability to communicate effectively, remember things and take care of themselves is negatively affected by this disease.
Wandering can become quite an issue. One moment your dad is hanging out in the living room; the next, he’s taken off on a little adventure down the street! Whether this is out of boredom, a desire to find someone or something (where’d the bathroom go?), or some other type of confusion, wandering can put your parents in a potentially dangerous situation.
Here are a few things you can do to help prevent your parents from wandering too far and to keep them safe.
- Attach child-safe doorknob covers to doors leading outside. These make it difficult to turn the doorknob and are often enough to prevent those with moderate to severe dementia from attempting to leave. A cheap and easy solution!
- Make sure your parents get enough exercise during the day to reduce restlessness.
- Add some type of barrier in front of your doors to make them noticeable. I’ve had someone recommend these magnetic screen doors in the past – a win-win if you live in an area with a lot of bugs!
- Even putting up a “Do Not Enter” sign on the inside of select doors can be enough to deter those with dementia from passing through.
- Attach a GPS enabled emergency alert system to their belt. If your mom or dad does manage to wander off, you’ll be able to locate them quickly.
- Provide your parent with an ID bracelet with appropriate contact information so that others can get a hold of you if needed.
- Give your neighbors the heads up! Ask that they contact you if they see your parents outdoors by themselves.
It’s not uncommon for those with dementia to experience loss of bladder and/or bowel control (this tends to be the case for those with more advanced stages.) Accidents may even occur if your parent forgets where the bathroom is. While it’s not always going to be possible to prevent these things from occurring, there are ways to make things easier for your parents. Nevertheless, do your best to assure them it’s not their fault and to ease their embarrassment. This disease may have taken away their memory—don’t let it take away their dignity.
- Remind them to use the bathroom every two hours. If you can establish a routine, they’ll be more likely to remember to go the bathroom before it becomes urgent.
- Make sure they don’t drink too much in the evenings. Helping them drink throughout the day will ensure they keep hydrated.
- Make it easy to find the bathroom by putting up signs with illustrations.
- Provide them with a bedside commode to use during the night.
- Incontinence pads can be used when necessary to mitigate any accidents.
Unfortunately, seniors with dementia can often become easily agitated. This is a symptom that tends to get worse as their dementia progresses. Verbal or physical aggression may occur out of fear, fatigue or restlessness, or during moments of realization that their losing control of their mental faculties. Again, while this is hard to deal with as a caregiver, it’s important to put yourself in their shoes. If you suspect your mom or dad is starting to get agitated, try doing the following:
- Minimize noise or the number of people in the room.
- Provide them with familiar objects, such as photographs, to calm them down.
- Soothing music, reading, or walks can work wonders in reducing stress and instilling calmness.
- Do not try to restrain them. This will most certainly make things worse and cause undue stress.
- Keep dangerous objects out of reach.
- Show them empathy. This isn’t always easy to do without coming across as being patronizing, but do your best to let them know you understand their frustration.
Repetitive Speech or Actions
I’m just going to go ahead and say what everyone else is thinking—dealing with repetitive behavior as a caregiver can be incredibly annoying! However, it’s pretty understandable given the circumstances. It’s often frustrating for the person with dementia too. Who wants to be told that you’re constantly asking the same thing? Here are some tips on dealing with it.
- First and foremost, try to not make a big deal of it when your mom or dad repeats the same question or statement. Instead, acknowledge them and then try to change the subject in order for them to move on.
- Distracting them with an activity.
- Avoid discussing plans with them too far in advance. They’ll inevitably forget what you’ve told them. Wait until you’re about to do something before filling them in.
- Put up written notifications to remind them of certain things.
This is one of the more interesting aspects of dementia, most notably seen in those with Alzheimer’s. I say interesting because scientists don’t really know why this occurs.
Sundowning is a term used to describe the increase in behavioral problems seen later in the day (or when the sun goes down, hence the name.) The most likely cause of this is a disruption to the internal-clock of those with dementia. You can read up on it more on the Alzheimer’s Association website.
If your loved one is experiencing Sundowning, try some of the following techniques to cope with it.
- Ensure they get plenty of mental and physical exercise during the day. Keep them from napping by encouraging them to join in on activities.
- Reduce their consumption of sugar or caffeine, especially later in the day. (This is probably something we’d all benefit from…)
- TV can also be quite stimulating, due to the blue light it emits. If you can, try to keep them away from the screen later in the day.
- Keep their living area well-lit before and after the sun goes down. This often helps to reduce confusion.
- Make sure they’re comfortable and safe. Install nightlights where needed and lock doors to prevent wandering.
Eating & Drinking
Sometimes even the most common, day-to-day tasks can become difficult to remember for those suffering from dementia—even eating and drinking! Ensuring your parents stay hydrated and eat enough nutritious foods during the day is very important. If either of these are overlooked, they can lead to other health issues, as well as increased irritability, sleeplessness, and confusion.
- Try providing your parents with five to six smaller meals throughout the day, as opposed to three big meals. This can help establish a routine that is more easily remembered due having shorter time frames between meals.
- Make it easy for them to eat and drink. If possible, make it so that they don’t have to rely on you to feed or hydrate themselves. Pre-cut food and elderly drinking cups are great ways of accomplishing this.
- Eat with them! No one likes to be alone, and accompanying your parents at the dinner table can help a lot in establishing an enjoyable routine around eating and drinking.
Bathing and Hygiene
This is probably going to be one of the toughest tasks you’ll face while caring for someone with dementia. For most people, bathing is a very private activity—a sentiment that doesn’t change even when you have dementia. Unfortunately, remembering when and how to bathe can become an issue.
If your mom or dad is in the early stages of dementia, they may just need a reminder to bathe, brush their teeth, and practice other general forms of hygiene. If this is the case, ensure they can remain safe while alone in the shower by providing them with non-slip bath mats, grab-bars or shower seats.
As the disease progresses, however, you’ll need to provide them with more assistance. Here are a few things you can do to make them more comfortable.
- Place their soap and shampoo within reach
- Follow a similar routine as they did in the past. Use the same soaps and shampoo and bathe them during the same time of day.
- Close all the doors and curtains to ensure privacy
- Provide them with a towel or robe for when they get out of the bath
- Try letting them get acclimated to the water. This might involve filling the bath up only slightly for them to test the water, or simply pouring water over their hands before they get in.
Like bathing, getting dressed can also be an intimate task. Help your parents by providing them with comfortable clothes that they easily put on themselves. Keep choices to a minimum to avoid frustration, or lay out the clothes for them to wear for the day. That being said, dictating one’s style is often easier said than done. So if your mom wants to wear her favorite yellow polka-dotted cardigan, don’t stop her!