You’ve known your loved one your whole life. But sometimes, dementia can make them feel like a completely different person.
As a caregiver, it isn’t just the disease that’s exhausting. It’s the emotional toll and wreckage that gets dragged along with it.
Caring for someone with dementia is by turns frustrating and heartbreaking, but there are ways to make it easier. Here are a few tips to help caregivers handle dementia with love and realism.
The first thing to remember about dementia is that it’s so much more complicated than simply memory loss.
Memory loss is one of the classic signs of dementia, but it’s hardly the only symptom to watch for. In fact, certain forms of dementia don’t manifest as memory loss – especially if your loved one doesn’t actually have Alzheimer’s disease.
There are many less-known forms of dementia. Frontotemporal dementia, for example, is a form of dementia in which neurons in the front and side of the brain begin to die, causing the lobes to shrink.
This can result in a number of changes as the disease progresses, from difficulty planning activities and handling daily tasks such as cooking, struggling to concentrate or get motivated, and personality changes. The exact changes depend on where the damage to your brain begins.
And because it doesn’t look like familiar forms of dementia, FTD is often misdiagnosed as schizophrenia, depression, or Parkinson’s disease.
Even if your loved one has Alzheimer’s, it’s important to remember that they’re experiencing a neurological decline, and that will affect them in ways beyond memory loss. Your calm, rational mother may experience hallucinations or your gentlemanly grandfather may curse like a sailor.
Regardless of the type of dementia, it’s important to remember that arguing doesn’t do any good – however much you may want to at the moment.
Let’s say your loved one says something that is blatantly false or makes no sense. Your instinct is to react as you would with any other adult – to correct them. After all, you’ve always interacted with your loved one as a rational adult who can make sense of the world.
But it’s important to remember that dementia changes the playing field. Your loved one isn’t saying nonsensical or false things to irritate or upset you. They’re doing it because, in their confusion, they genuinely believe these things to be true and sensible.
Trying to correct them, especially as dementia progresses, is a recipe for disaster. If all else fails, think of it like reasoning with a toddler or a drunk person. You simply cannot win an argument with someone who does not use reason or logic with any degree of consistency.
Of course, this can be difficult to keep in mind when your loved one is saying nonsensical things from a place of genuine distress.
Let’s say, for example, that your grandfather with dementia served in the military and sees footage of conflict on TV from halfway around the world. Because of this, he believes that there’s a war or disaster going on around you and is panicked about getting the family to safety.
Obviously, this isn’t true, and you don’t want to leave your grandfather to his distress. But trying to explain that there is no war going on around you won’t work either. Even if it registers, he may forget in an hour and be distressed all over again.
In situations like this, don’t listen to the words your loved one is saying. Read their nonverbal cues and body language. Listen for the feeling underlying the words rather than the words themselves and respond to the feeling.
Instead of trying to show your grandfather that there is no war going on, seek to reassure him that it hasn’t come near where you live and you’re safe to stay where you are.
Phrase your responses plainly and directly and use calm, open body language. Have a short, simple, soothing reply on hand that you can repeat whenever the same set of fears arise.
Whenever you deal with a loved one with dementia, it’s important to remember that you can’t hold a conversation with them the way that you used to.
Aside from unrealistic beliefs or nonsensical statements, your loved one simply cannot logic their way through a conversation the same way they used to. Holding a conversation requires a certain combination of memory processing and critical thinking that may be difficult to maintain with dementia.
So while your loved one may start out a conversation knowing what’s going on, they may not be able to hold the conversation for more than a few minutes before they forget what’s going on or lose the thread of the discussion.
Start by stating your message plainly and ask simple questions. Don’t talk down to them, but avoid offering too many choices when asking a question. Yes or no questions are best if you can manage them. Better yet, use visual cues to show the available choices and prompt a response.
This is your family member – a parent, a grandparent, an aunt or uncle. This is someone you love and grew up with. You want to offer them the best care possible, especially in their moments of worry and confusion.
To that end, it’s important to set realistic expectations of your loved one and their disease.
You may want your loved one to be back to themselves during the holidays, but that may not be possible. All dementia caregivers will say that there are good days and bad days. Do your best to foster the good days, but don’t force them.
It also means being realistic about what you can offer your loved one as a caregiver.
Dementia is progressive and irreversible, which means that your loved one will deteriorate over time. Some people have decades, some have a few years, but dementia patients do inevitably deteriorate.
At a certain point, you may have to recognize that an assisted living home or specialized care facility can better tend to your loved one than you can. If you’re trying to weigh your options, you can learn about dementia home care versus regular home care as a place to start.
Caring for someone with dementia is no small undertaking. But when it’s your loved one, you wouldn’t dream of leaving them to struggle alone.
For more tips on caring for a loved one and bolstering memory, check out our blog posts, like these five all-natural solutions to improve long-term memory.