12 Essential Caregiving Tips for People With Dementia

Updated

Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

Caring for someone with dementia is a time-consuming and exhausting journey. Tips for managing dementia are emerging as we learn more about what works and what doesn’t for people with this disease.

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The challenge of dementia is that it manifests in different ways for each individual. Your loved one may have a very different experience than someone else you know. The disease trajectory is also variable, making it difficult to predict decline and learning how to prepare.

As you go through our essential caregiving tips for people with dementia, accept that much of what you try will be trial and error. And just when you find something that works, it changes later! Try to be flexible and adjust to the changing moods, needs, and safety concerns of your loved one. Essential caregiving tips can help you get a handle on things early in the process. 

Tips for Caring for a Person WIth Dementia at Home

When a family member with dementia is cared for at home, you might feel that you are always playing catch-up. However, we have some tips to help keep you grounded and your loved one safe. 

1. Home safety evaluation

People with dementia can get into all sorts of trouble, and your focus should be on safety. Along with everything else you have to worry about, safety features should not be one of them. By doing a home safety evaluation, you can anticipate areas that might cause problems later. Start by contacting an occupational therapist who can make accessibility and safety recommendations.

  • Ensure that the stove is not a concern by turning it off when you aren’t using it or installing an automatic shut-off switch. 
  • If your loved one wanders, put a wander guard on the door or keep the door locked in a way that someone can’t get out, such as a keyed deadbolt. Make sure that windows are locked. 
  • If your loved one will keep it on, consider an emergency response system to alert you if they fall. 
  • Remove all firearms, matches, and knives or place somewhere remote and inaccessible.
  • Improve lighting throughout the house, especially to the bathroom at night. 
  • Lock medications in a box or cabinet.

2. Communication

Communicating with someone with dementia is one of the great challenges of the disease and something that most families struggle with. Over time your family member may not recognize you or other family members. There are some tried and true ways to keep a person with dementia calm and feeling cared for. 

  • To the extent that you can, stay calm and speak slowly in short sentences. Allow what you have said to sink in before moving to a new thought or request.
  • Make eye contact when speaking so that you know you have someone’s attention. 
  • Try not to interrupt, and allow time for your loved one to respond. Break tasks into smaller steps.
  • Use a positive tone of voice since people with dementia are susceptible to your frustration or anger. 
  • If your loved one is resisting something you want them to do, such as bathe, wait and try again later. People with dementia can be very sensitive to water and room temperature.
  • Always use terms and tones of respect and try not to be condescending.

3. Health and comfort

In the chaos of caring for someone with dementia, it’s easy to forget the basics that can help someone feel better physically and emotionally. Your efforts to create and reinforce a healthy foundation for your loved one can help you, as well!

  • Emphasize healthy, plant-based foods. Offer small healthy snacks throughout the day. Create a distraction-free environment during eating times. If you can, develop a routine that schedules meals at the same time every day.
  • Focus on hydration. As people age, they lose their thirst mechanism, and dehydration can have serious consequences. Encourage water throughout the day, but consider flavored, low-sugar beverages if that works better.
  • It can be a challenge to get people with dementia to go to the doctor. It is important to keep up with routine preventative healthcare such as dental care, eyesight checks, and lab draws. Try telling your loved one the day of or just before the appointment, so they have less time to get agitated. Keep a matter-of-fact attitude and bring along water and snacks.
  • Create good sleeping habits by limiting naps and caffeine. 

4. Activities

Activities should be an integral part of the daily life of any person with dementia. Activities keep people stimulated, interested, and calmer. They might even help with cognition and mood. The trick is to offer an activity that provides a sense of independence and empowerment without being overwhelming in complexity, which can elicit the opposite response. Here are some ideas and approaches that others report work well.

  • Start with simple activities. If your loved one gets bored, then you can try something a bit more challenging.
  • Incorporate activities into daily chores such as helping with meals or sorting laundry.
  • Encourage physical activity such as taking a walk together outdoors. Being outside in the sun can improve mood and help people sleep at night.
  • Music has been shown to have a profoundly positive effect on people with dementia. Try headphones and compile a list of their favorite music. 
  • Scents and smells can evoke positive memories and feelings. Baking bread or cookies can be comforting and calming. Some people have had success with scents like lavender in the bedroom at night to elicit calm.
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Tips for Combating Frustration and Stress While Caring for a Person With Dementia

Combating frustration and stress while caring for a person with dementia is a full-time job. Caregiver burnout is common for families who are caring for a person with dementia. If you are burned out, you will struggle to contain your emotions and make things even worse for yourself and your loved one. Stress and frustration are a normal part of caring for someone with dementia. The trick is to manage your stress with healthy coping skills and access to caregiver resources.  

5. Get help

You may feel like you have to do everything yourself, but the fact is, you don’t. Reaching out for help and letting go of some of the control is healthy. Accept the fact that you may know what is best for your loved one and recognize that if you ask for help, you can do so with safety and wellbeing in mind. Let’s look at some suggestions to help ease your burden.

  • Hire home care

Hiring professional caregivers can give you some much-needed relief while providing some stimulation for your loved one. The beneficial aspect of home care is that it is very flexible, with as few or as many hours as you need. Finances might be a concern, but it might offset some costs if you have long-term care insurance. Talk with a financial advisor about some ways to access funds for private caregiving.

  • Ask other family members

If other family members are not offering to help, it’s probably because they don’t know what to do. Compile a list of simple tasks that you need help with. Some ideas include grocery shopping, picking up medications, coming for a visit, or making phone calls to get information on resources.

  • Consider respite or adult daycare

Respite services through your county or state might be limited but worth investigating. Also, adult daycare for one or two days a week is very affordable and will give you rest. 

6. Take care of yourself

We know you have heard it before. But it will be difficult to be the best caregiver you can without a foundation of physical and mental health. Focus on exercise, proper nutrition, stress relaxation techniques, and good sleep. If you need mental health support, contact a therapist to talk to. Most are offering teletherapy now, so you don’t even have to leave the house.

7. Be informed and realistic

Educating yourself about dementia, the symptoms, behaviors, and the trajectory of the disease can help you feel less alone. Don’t hesitate to investigate caregiver blogs where people who know what you’re going through can offer support and resources.

Being realistic means that if you can accept that dementia is highly unpredictable, it will help you cope. In fact, things may very well get worse over time since there is no cure for dementia. 

Tips for Caregivers of an Aggressive Person With Dementia

Many, but not all, people with dementia become aggressive. The emergence of aggression can be shocking, especially when your loved one has never been the angry or violent type. These episodes of anger and lashing out are frightening and challenging to deal with. Our tips for managing aggressive behavior are worth trying. 

8. Identify the cause

Since people with dementia have trouble communicating their needs, you may have to play detective and seek out the cause. Here are some typical causes of frustration and aggression.

  • Pain or discomfort

Pain can be caused by an existing medical condition that isn’t adequately treated, temperature extremes, or even a noisy over stimulating environment. Make sure the person doesn’t need to use the toilet or have soiled their clothes. 

  • Hunger or thirst

Try offering a snack and some water. People with dementia may not be able to communicate hunger or thirst.

  • Fatigue

If your loved one has had difficulty sleeping, then fatigue could be a cause. Improve sleep hygiene by eliminating naps and making the bedroom pleasant and comforting.

  • Poor communication

Perhaps your loved one feels overwhelmed by questions or their inability to communicate what they want and need.

9. Stay calm and be reassuring

Try to be positive and stay calm. Reassure the person that you are there to help and take care of them. Use touch if it seems appropriate and use a soft tone of voice.

10. Try an activity

Try shifting the focus to an activity like sorting something, going for a walk or playing music. Put on a movie to watch together. 

11. Check medication interactions

If you have ruled out most other causes and the aggressive behavior continues, talk with the doctor about possible medication interactions or side effects that could be causing agitation.

12. Depression or anxiety

Depression and anxiety are common in people with dementia, but treatment with medications has not proven very effective. Other suggestions include scheduling enjoyable and meaningful activities and problem-solving around issues contributing to distress.

Essential Caregiving Tips for People With Dementia 

As you navigate the choppy waters of caregiving for a person with dementia, know that you are not alone. There are resources available, and our tips will help you keep you and your loved one on a path towards safety and well-being.

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