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Categories > Aging Well > Alzheimer’s disease and dementia

When someone you love has dementia

Caring for a loved one who is ill requires patience and compassion, and when that loved one is suffering from dementia, the caregiver’s role can be especially challenging.

Dementia is the name given to a group of conditions that involve a progressive loss of mental abilities. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. Other illnesses that cause brain function to worsen include Parkinson’s disease and vascular dementia, reduced blood flow to the brain’s nerve cells. Over time, people with dementia lose the ability to think clearly, communicate, remember things or even care for themselves. Sometimes, dementia causes mood swings and personality changes.

Spare the truth

Mental health experts continue to study dementia and have come up with new insights about caring for someone with the condition. Some behavioral specialists suggest caregivers no longer insist on reality, which can lead to arguments or emotional pain. Instead, some suggest trying one of several approaches. Consider this scenario: Your mom wants to go out to dinner with your dad, who died five years ago. You could respond in one of three ways:

  1. Use therapeutic lying: “Dad called. He can’t make it until later and told us to go ahead and eat without him. Would you like baked chicken?”
  2. Sidestep the truth and steer your loved one to a different thought: “I know you miss eating out with Dad. There’s an Italian restaurant that just opened. I hear their lasagna is wonderful. Shall we take a drive there?”
  3. Validate and acknowledge your loved one’s feelings: “I know you and Dad loved to go out. He especially liked that seafood restaurant. Didn’t he usually order the lobster?”

Caregiving strategies

If someone you love has dementia, you may be able to better communicate with him or her and deal with troubling behavior by:

  • Staying positive. Your voice, body language and mood can help keep the interaction between you and your loved one upbeat and loving.
  • Distracting when necessary. When you need to talk, turn off the T.V. or draw the curtains. But when the going gets tough, redirect your loved one’s attention by playing soothing music or moving him or her to a favorite rocking chair.
  • Limiting your questions. Don’t ask Dad what he wants for lunch—it’s too confusing. Let him know when his meal is ready and gently direct him toward the kitchen.
  • Maintaining structure. Establish simple routines and stick to them.
  • Safety-proofing your surroundings. Lock medicine cabinets and use gates or alarm systems to prevent wandering. Get rid of clutter.
  • Strolling down memory lane. Play old tunes or browse through photo albums and scrapbooks together. Many people who have dementia have a better grip on the past than on the present and are soothed by these sentimental journeys.
  • Encouraging healthy habits. Exercise and good nutrition can help calm your loved one. A daily walk together or a simple home exercise routine may also curb the urge to wander.
  • Not forgetting your own health and well-being. Take care of yourself and get all the support you can. Ask your healthcare provider about resources such as counselors, caregivers’ groups, home health aides and senior day-care options.