Advice for Devoted Loved Ones of Dementia Patients

My father struggles with dementia and has for some time.  Earlier this year, my mother and I made the heartbreaking decision to have him join a memory care “community.”  I got the word, “community” from Dr. Jonathan McKinsey, a psychiatrist who addressed the Alzheimer’s Support Group that my mother and I attend.

Mom and  Dad
Mom and Dad

Dr. McKinsey was entertaining, informative and compassionate.  The following morning, I took a long walk and considered what he had shared with us.

Live Where They Live

“If your loved one thinks it’s 1972, then talk about 1972.”  In my book, “50 Revelations from the Heart,” number 32 is, “Perception is reality.” This couldn’t be truer than for an Alzheimer’s or dementia patient. Their memories, the doctor explained, are becoming more narrow each day with recent memories being wiped away.  Inevitably, they do believe it’s 20 or 30 or even 40 years ago. So meet them there. Talk about the old times. Let them reminisce.  If you try to jar them into the 21st century, you will only frustrate yourself and agitate your loved one into a tizzy.

Set Them Up for Success

Don’t ask them to make decisions, but give them choices instead.  Instead of, “What do you want to eat?” ask, “Do you want a hamburger or spaghetti?” With a diminished executive function, loved ones dealing with dementia can become overwhelmed by daily decision-making. By giving them a framework in which to exercise small amounts of autonomy, they get to exercise control in a way that matches their abilities.

Another area Dr. McKinsey said can be problematic, is basic hygiene and dressing.  Remembering the order of things (e.g., socks then shoes) can become a challenge for some patients. But with reminders (written or verbal cues) the family member can get dressed more independently.  In fact, the doctor even suggested offering shoes with velcro and pants with elastic waistbands, to make the dressing process easier as fine motor skills begin to diminish.

Stay Involved and Supportive

Dr. McKinsey stressed the importance of staying involved and supportive of the family member. He told stories about individuals whose family essentially dropped them off at the memory care community and never returned.  These decisions are never easy and often make family members feel guilty.  And frankly, it’s easer not to watch your family’s matriarch or patriarch lose their cognitive skills. This is perfectly normal and something I can totally relate to.  It took weeks to prepare my dad and his new accommodations and with every step, the guilt grew in the pit of my stomach.  But with time and the limitless devotion of my mother, my dad acclimated, relaxed and began to enjoy his new surroundings.  And as a result, my mother and I are able to breathe a little easier.

Take Care of the Care Taker

As my father’s condition worsened, I began to worry about the toll my dad’s dementia was taking on my mother.  The good doctor said this was not unusual.  He recounted several cases where the care giver’s health suffers because all of their energy is focused on their family member.

My family was no different. Fiffty-six years of marriage and a 58-year relationship was changing more quickly than they anticipated and in ways they never imagined. There were times that my dad was frustrated and times that my mom was overwhelmed. It was only after it became almost impossible to care for my dad at home that my mom agreed to find a memory care community for him. While all of us wish that Dad remained well enough to stay home, the memory care community has been liberating and helpful for both of them. Dad is safe and Mom sees him every day. She is getting to know the staff, the other residents and their families. Now their time together is truly quality time, looking at old photographs, reminiscing or listening to music.

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