Life can feel like a never-ending roller coaster ride when your loved one has dementia. Some days, she’s happy and responsive; others, she’s agitated and combative. How can you best support your loved one in senior living through the hard days of dementia?
Sue Kruse, director of clinical education at Silverado, offers advice for caregivers on making it through the darkest days.
When Your Loved One Has Trouble Communicating
“In the early stages of dementia, communication is often the biggest challenge,” says Kruse. “The person living with dementia may be unable to express his or her needs and become increasingly frustrated with the caregiver.”
To support your loved one in this area, Kruse urges you to try to understand what he or she is trying to express. It might be a simple need such as food or a warm sweater, or something more complex such as feeling pain but being unable to explain what’s wrong, she says.
It’s also important to express yourself clearly, and to help your loved one understand what you need from him or her. “For example, if he doesn’t want to take a shower, give him a reason to take one: ‘Your son Bob is coming for lunch today, so we need to take a shower,’” says Kruse.
When Your Loved One Is Living in the Past
It’s easier for someone with dementia to tap into long-term memory than short-term memory, which is why your loved one may talk about past events as if they were happening in the present. And it can be confusing, discouraging, and even frightening for him to be reminded that his perception is skewed.
Instead, Kruse recommends getting into your loved one’s world, no matter how different it may be from present-day reality. “For example, when he says he needs to go to school, understand that he is remembering an earlier time in his life,” she says. “Instead of arguing, make a statement such as, ‘Today is Saturday; isn’t it wonderful that we have no school today?’”
When Your Loved One Plays the Blame Game
If you’ve ever cared for someone with dementia, you’re probably familiar with the accusatory and even paranoid behavior that comes with the territory. When your loved one can’t find the wallet, phone, or keys she has hidden or misplaced, she may blame friends or family members, explains Kruse. For caregivers, that can be a hard pill to swallow. “It is very difficult to be accused of stealing when you’re trying so hard to help the person,” she says.
In these situations, Kruse suggests you take a step back and try not to take the rejection, insults, or behaviors personally. “Realize that the person living with dementia is often afraid and confused, and this is a defense mechanism,” she says. “Remember it is the damage to the brain causing the personality changes.”
When You Are Feeling Overwhelmed
While it’s so important to support your loved one with dementia, it’s also essential to take care of yourself. “Caring for someone with dementia is a 24-hour-a-day job and is overwhelming for anyone,” says Kruse. “Studies show that caregivers are at risk for increased health problems when caring for a person with dementia.”
In order to survive the roller coaster ride, caregivers must practice good self-care and take advantage of any assistance available, whether through friends, family, memory care, or other structured programs. In addition, chat lines such as Silverado’s 24/7 number (866-522-8125) are available no matter where you live.
“Use day care programs to get away and do something you love—go to the beach, a movie, or out to lunch,” says Kruse. “It is critical to take care of yourself, so you will be there to care for your loved one.”
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