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Dementia Etiquette: The Do's & Don'ts of Communication

A senior woman with her adult daughter in a rose garden.

Dementia affects more than 7 million older adults in the U.S today. Not to mention, the families and friends that have to watch their loved ones cognitive ability slowly decline. At the moment, there isn’t much that can be done except to continue to support, love and care for them. It is common for families and friends to become overwhelmed with this change in their loved one which may manifest in anger, frustration, sadness and confusion. Dementia can affect and change cognitive abilities in many different ways and today we will be looking into how to handle a few of the changes in a loved one and how to continue to show love and support through communication.

What is dementia?

Dementia is not a specific disease but rather an umbrella term used for older individuals experiencing loss of memory, language, problem solving and thinking skills. It is caused by damage to or loss of nerve cells and their connections in the brain.There are several reasons and medical conditions that can cause the onset of dementia but the medical conditions most commonly affect older adults over the age of 65. These abnormal brain changes can trigger a decline in thinking ability, also known as cognitive decline, severe enough to alter daily life and independent living function.

A few of the most common dementia behaviors and how to handle them…

1. They keep asking the same question over and over: If you find yourself in this situation, it’s best to simply repeat the answer calmly and kindly, even if you are frustrated. Your loved one can’t help it! If possible, try to divert your loved ones attention onto another task at hand like cleaning, reading or arts and crafts.

Ex. Q: Where is my husband? A: He is at work today. Can you help me fold this laundry?

2. They have a place to be: It is common for loved ones with dementia to have an imaginary appointment they must get to or they may have a train to catch to visit their parents. If you find yourself in this situation and your loved one is trying to leave the house, you can take a minute and go outside with them and use this time to distract them with another task. Eventually, your loved one will shift their attention to another thought and you can guide them back into the house. If this happens at night time and a midnight stroll isn’t your cup of tea, simply try to redirect them to a different activity or reassure them that their appointment is “in one more hour” or “your mom is coming to get you in 20 minutes”, always keeping calm and never showing impatience.

3. Night time waking and sleep disturbances: Loved one’s may wake up in the middle of the night and get ready as if it is time to start the day. If you find your loved one dressed up in their day clothes and ready to start the day at 2:00 am, you may kindly and simply guide them back to their room and help them get into their jammies, explaining that the sun is not up yet and it is time to go to sleep now.

4. Following a partner or spouse around everywhere: If you have a loved one trailing your every step, it is because they feel safe when they are with you. You may want to distract them with a task that they can do near you. For example, perhaps they can water the potted plants in the yard, or fold the laundry, perhaps shine the silverware, or sort the photos in the photo box.

5. Picking up items that aren’t theirs: According to the Alzheimer’s Association, your loved one could be trying to make sense of what is going on in their world and may feel a need to stockpile items that they believe belong to them, or belonged to them in the past. They are not “stealing” in the true sense of the word because that would involve intent and understanding that they are “stealing”. It could just be that they liked the feel of the sweater that they walked away with. One solution to try is putting together a box of their favorite things that they tend to pick up during the day. That way, when you observe them getting ready to put something into their pocket or purse that doesn’t belong to them, you can try distracting them to their own personal box with their name on it filled with pencils, coins, spoons, eyeglasses, old remotes, etc. Of course, you always want to make sure that they don’t have access to things that may harm them.

6. Setting their own items down and forgetting: Oftentimes people with dementia will put things down/away in unusual places and then forget where they are and accuse others of stealing from them. They can become very agitated until the item is located and it is not beneficial to either one of you to disagree with them. Instead, calmly tell them that you will help them locate the item they have lost and allow them to help you look.

Being a primary caregiver of a loved one with dementia can be challenging but just know that to grasp and understand caregiving for someone with dementia doesn’t happen overnight. It may take some time and patience to understand how to communicate with loved ones in this situation but reading articles on this topic is a great leap in the right direction. Plus, if you have any worries, questions or simply want to talk to people in the same situation as you, there are amazing local dementia support groups in Ventura county that are willing to hear you, support you, and offer tips that may help.


Find more helpful senior information: here! Or, discover a healthy recipe: here!

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