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24 Nov

How to help someone with dementia

What is dementia?

Dementia is the term used to describe an ongoing decline in brain function. It can effect memory, language and the ability to problem-solve, so much so that it impacts and interferes with daily life. Alzheimers is the most common cause for dementia.

More than 400,000 people live with dementia in the UK. It can affect anyone but is found most commonly in older groups. Dementia affects areas including memory, thinking, language, and judgement, but it can also affect mobility, breathing and the ability to swallow.

Whilst there is no cure for dementia, providing the right support to someone can still make a huge difference to their quality of life.  Every person living with the condition goes through their own unique journey. This means it is important to be flexible in the way you care for them and to think about the type of support they need as an individual.

This page can help you to understand what someone who has been diagnosed with dementia is experiencing and provide you with some practical advice on the best way to support your loved one.

Understanding the symptoms of dementia

When you’re caring for someone with dementia, it’s likely you’ll see changes in their moods and behaviour. These can vary considerably depending on the type of dementia a person has been diagnosed with, with factors such as lifestyle, personality and physical limitations also playing a part.

You may notice changes such as memory loss, or an inability to complete everyday tasks such as getting dressed or making a cup of tea. They might become disorientated in places that were once familiar with or forget the names of loved ones. Their sleeping patterns may change and they may become more fearful or depressed. Find out more about some of the early signs of dementia.

Recognising how the person feels can help you understand the impact that dementia is having on them and the best ways that you can provide care and support. Changes in behaviour may also mean that their needs are not being met. It’s important to pay attention to their responses, helping you identify any ways you can adjust your support and help them to live well.

Ways you can help someone with dementia

How you can help someone with their daily routine will depend on the person and the type of dementia they are living with. Ways to support someone with dementia include:

  • Encourage them to take regular exercise and keep active. This can bring a range of benefits including helping to maintain skills for longer
  • Help them to maintain a good diet and fluid intake. Offer regular access to snacks and drinks, as sometimes people may not be able to recall when it’s time to eat
  • Ensure the environment they live in is dementia friendly. Create signs using both pictures and words so it is clear where the bathroom, kitchen and living rooms are. Use contrasting colours to emphasise important areas or items such as toilet doors, toilet seats and crockery. Try to avoid lots of mirrors and strong patterns
  • Reduce unnecessary noise and distractions
  • Encourage regular social contact with family and friends
  • Leave a calendar or notices out which say when meal times are or what time you’re visiting
  • Make sure items of interest like newspapers and magazines are easy to find. Leave out photo albums with the names of people, who they are and dates written on the back of photos
  • Adapt activities and hobbies to suit the person. As dementia progresses, some people may no longer be interested in spending an hour or so completing a specific hobby and may only enjoy the first 20-30 minutes

Communicating with a person who has dementia

People with dementia can have difficulties communicating, which may lead to them losing confidence or withdrawing from social situations. It is important to keep talking to each other to help them to express themselves and help you get a better understanding of how they are feeling.

Before you begin speaking, make sure you are at the person’s eye level and that there is good lighting. Think about their physical requirements, they may have glasses or hearing aids that can help. Try to remove any unnecessary noises or distractions such as the TV or radio.

Make sure you speak clearly and use wording that the person is familiar with. If you’re discussing something specific you might want to show the person the item. You could try using flash cards with words or short sentences to aid their understanding.

How to ease a person with dementia’s stresses and frustrations

At times the person living with dementia may display a stress or distressed reaction, which can be equally distressing for the person caring for them. There are many factors that can cause someone with dementia to become stressed, such as a particular environment, person or people, TV show, lighting, mirrors, patterns on items, a picture or even a word that may have been misunderstood.   

When a person with dementia becomes frustrated, you can offer support by acknowledging what they are trying to say, as to them this is very real. Rather than trying to bring them back to our reality, enter their reality. The person may be unable to recall their short term memories from the past few years and may believe they are now back living at a time where they were much younger.

Try to establish what it is they may be trying to say and help them to say it. You can use phrases such as “what do you think” and “how do you feel”, as asking direct questions which require facts may exacerbate any stress that they are feeling.

There may be times when the best course of action is to find a distraction. You could reminisce about past good times and perhaps pull out a photo book.

How to manage behaviours that may challenge

As dementia progresses, some people can develop behaviours that may challenge. It is important to remember that they are not simply behaving badly, but that the behaviour may be a result of the dementia, an underlying health problem, their general environment or the care that they are receiving. 

In this situation, following the tips below can help:

  • First and foremost, acknowledge what the person is trying to say
  • Convey that you want to help
  • Use reflective listening, where you paraphrase and restate the feelings and words of the person so that feel understood and have the opportunity to focus their ideas
  • Offer reassurance, understanding their needs
  • Reduce distractions
  • Stay calm, neutral, be willing and empathetic
  • Watch for non-verbal communication

We recommend that you seek medical advice if your loved one continues to behave in a way that is outside of their normal behaviour, as there may be an underlying medical cause such as an infection or mental health need.

Reaching out for support

If you have any doubts about how to provide support to someone living at home with dementia or are looking for further information, please seek advice from the Alzheimer’s Society. They can provide you with practical guidance, and will also be able to put you in touch with any additional support or services needed.

You can also turn to Priory Adult Care and our dementia care services. We have care homes across the UK that have been developed to meet the needs of residents with dementia, where our compassionate team provide specialised services to ensure that those in their care can maintain both their independence and dignity.

If you would like to find out more about the services available at Priory Adult Care, you can make an enquiry online. You can also call us on 0808 256 3200 to speak to someone directly.

Reviewed by Donna Hanlon, Dementia Coach at Priory Adult Care