Caring for someone with dementia can feel awfully hopeless. With little available in terms of treatment and nothing whatsoever in terms of a cure, caregivers might be tempted to assume there’s not much they can do other than keep their relative or friend safe and comfortable.
Setting those assumptions aside, though, can lead to meaningful gains for people with dementia, in both their quality of life and their physical health. Here are a few small steps you can take to help someone with dementia today.
Take her to lunch.
Eating with a group can lead to not just better nutrition and hydration, but also improved quality of life, according to a recent study. “Eating and drinking together is key to feeling like we belong, that we are part of a group,” says study author Lee Hooper, PhD, RD, a researcher at Norwich Medical School at the University of East Anglia in the UK. “When we have dementia, we lose some of the skills to become part of a group, so I think it’s a lonely place to be sometimes.” Ideally, residential care facilities will incorporate this knowledge into their programs and encourage staff to eat alongside their patients, she says, but in the meantime, it’s easy enough to at least occasionally eat alongside a person with dementia you care about. (Boost your memory and age-proof your mind with these natural solutions.)
Pick up your fork.
Since you’re already eating together, you’ll also have the opportunity to make mealtime move seamlessly. A recent study found that even if people with Alzheimer’s have lost the ability to perform certain tasks, they retain their ability to mimic behavior. A person with dementia may at first appear baffled by a fork and a knife, but remembering what to do next might be as simple as watching someone else start to eat first. In fact, all sorts of daily activities, from using a phone to doing the laundry, can be modeled and mimicked, says study author Ambra Bisio, a postdoctoral researcher in the department of robotics, brain, and cognitive sciences at the University of Genoa in Italy. “Caregivers might help the patients to maintain intact, as long as possible, the ability to easily move in their familiar environment,” she says, by basically re-teaching them these essential daily skills.
Prep a meal he’ll recognize.
People with dementia often have an easier time conjuring up a memory from childhood than what happened yesterday. Knowing this can help facilitate eating, which often grows more challenging for people with dementia. That means new-fangled culinary inventions are probably off the table. “A beautiful deconstructed lemon meringue pie isn’t going to be recognized as food,” says Australia-based dietitian Ngaire Hobbins, author of Eat to Cheat Dementia and Eat to Cheat Aging. Instead, find out what foods he loved when he was younger and watch him chew with joy.
Ask her to play the piano.
Only if she enjoyed playing the piano before, that is. A 2015 study of nearly 200 residents at care facilities found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that older adults who participate in fewer activities reported a lower quality of life. Their lack of participation was found to have nothing to do with their actual cognitive ability to join in, though. “We have found the activities offered are usually related to the interest of the staff rather than the person with dementia,” says researcher Wendy Moyle, PhD, director for the Centre for Health Practice Innovation at Griffith University in Australia. These activities check the stereotypical boxes of nursing home activities: bingo, movies, manicures. “We had people in our study who wanted to play the piano but were not encouraged, as the assumption was that they would not have the cognitive capacity to do so,” Moyle says. Neither staff nor family caregivers questioned that assumption, she says, but participation in hobbies and activities a person previously enjoyed can bring chances to socialize and to overcome loneliness and frustration. “Enabling the person with dementia to make choices in the activities they choose,” Moyle says, “will enable them to participate as a full member of society and to experience optimal well-being.”
Keep him drinking.
Frighteningly, dehydration is a leading cause of death among people with advanced dementia. Thirst naturally decreases with age, and while people with dementia may forget to drink, they also might lack the communication skills to ask for something to sip, or have difficulty physically swallowing, according to CaringKind, formerly the New York City chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. Gently encourage drinking throughout the day, and think outside the water bottle: Maybe something flavored like a sports drink or juice will be more appealing. Even soup or foods with a high water content, like cucumbers and watermelon, can help fight off dehydration.
Turn on some tunes.
Just like hearing your favorite song can snap you out of a funk, music is a powerful tool for people with dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, it can calm agitated patients, lighten their mood, and even help with coordination, since the motor center of our brains will respond automatically to sound. Similarly to serving recognizable foods, stick with hits from their early 20s, which they’re most likely to recall and react strongly to. If you need some convincing, watch Henry, a dementia patient featured in the documentary Alive Inside, come to life when he hears some of his favorite songs. (Keep the tissues handy.)
Take her for a tour of your garden.
Spending time in nature makes most of us feel instantly at ease, and people with dementia are no different. A 2014 study found that dementia patients who spent time in outdoor gardens had lower levels of agitation. “Gardens may offer a form of therapy whereby people are more able to easily engage with their environment,” says study author Rebecca Whear, a research fellow at the St. Luke’s campus of the University of Exeter in the UK. Maybe they’re comforted by the smell of the flowers or the feel of the soil, or even the memory of taking care of their own gardens when they were younger, she says. If you don’t have a green thumb, find a nearby arboretum, botanical garden, or community farm for an easy stroll.
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