Make day-to-day life enjoyable for loved ones with dementia

Created date

March 2nd, 2018
Senior mother and her daughter looking through a family photo album.

Senior mother and her daughter looking through a family photo album.

Living with memory loss is becoming more common as the U.S. population ages. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 5.5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common memory-robbing illness.

Because of the many physical and emotional challenges that accompany memory loss, researchers have been investigating ways to maximize daily functioning for patients and their caregivers. Although we have a long way to go, there are some tips and strategies that have been shown to help.

Regular health checks

It is hard to know whether someone with dementia is not feeling well, or if a change in their behavior is due to the disease’s progression or an unrelated health problem. That’s why regular health checks are important. “Even a minor illness can cause a change in behavior and significant upheaval in daily functioning,” says Jennifer Tam, M.D., medical director at Linden Ponds, an Erickson Living community in Hingham, Mass. “We need to promptly treat any physical problems and make sure chronic conditions are well managed.”

Medications can make memory loss worse. “Over-the-counter medications for allergies, pain, or sleep, especially if they contain diphenhydramine [Benadryl], can disrupt memory,” Tam says. “Many prescription medicines can also cloud thinking processes, such as sedatives and bladder-control drugs.”

Some people with dementia may have been taking a certain medication for a long time without a problem, but it can begin to affect them differently because of the disease process. “The doctor can assess all medications to determine if any of them may be causing new unwanted behaviors or side effects,” Tam says. “Unnecessary medicines can be eliminated and the regimen simplified if possible.” 

Daily life

Studies show that people with dementia are calmer if they know what to expect. “Maintaining a regular routine is very important,” Tam says. “Even if a patient can’t recall the order of daily tasks, it makes it easier to get through the day if there is a dependable structure in place.”

Memory deficits can mean a loss of control over many aspects of life. “Caregivers can help by letting their loved one maintain as much dignity and independence as possible,” says Margaret Kimbell, D.H.A., vice president of community living, who designed the Memory Support strategy for Erickson Living. “Allowing them to make small choices can help.”

For example, your loved one may no longer be able to dress themselves, but they could still want to choose their clothing. “Laying out two outfits can help foster that sense of control,” Kimbell explains. “You are providing a limited choice, without overwhelming them.”

Caregivers sometimes need to let go of the idea that everyday tasks need to be carried out in a certain way. “Someone’s memory and functioning may still be intact enough to be able to make a sandwich,” Kimbell says. “They may take longer and make a messier job of it, but if you can give up control, it might lessen frustration for everyone.”

Fond memories or new fears

“Short-term memories leave us first, and long-term memories often become more vivid,” Kimbell says. “Finding ways to remind someone of happy times can elevate their mood.”

Bring out the old photo album and describe what was happening in the pictures, using names and places. “Write details on the back of the photo so anyone can share these memories,” Kimbell suggests.

Basic preferences don’t always change—some people prefer listening to music they enjoyed, or watching a favorite movie. “Think of what used to bring a smile to their face,” Kimbell says.

At the same time, your loved one may remember events incorrectly, or say they no longer like something that used to be enjoyable. “We need to acknowledge thoughts and feelings and respond respectfully,” Tam says, “even if what they are saying or remembering is incorrect.”

Erickson Living’s Memory Support program

Erickson Living’s Memory Support program employs all of the above strategies, as well as research-based best practices for memory care. The program has three components—Memory Fitness, Memory Health, and Memory Care.  

“Memory Fitness is designed for people who have no memory deficits,” Kimbell says. “It helps people stay sharp by offering classes and other useful ways to stimulate brain health.” 

The second component, Memory Health, is for those who are in the beginning stages of dementia. It provides resources and early-intervention strategies to help people with early memory loss. Lastly, Memory Care is designed to help people in the middle or late stages of dementia by offering complete care, including a designated neighborhood within continuing care that’s been set up to help residents function with as much independence as possible.

All Erickson Living residents—whether they live independently or in the continuing care neighborhood—can participate in Memory Support. 

Communication tips

•Do not ask, “Remember when...?”

•Do not finish sentences.

•Do not scold if what they are saying makes no sense to you.

•Maintain eye contact.

•Speak slowly and clearly.

•Use short sentences about single topics.

•Do not give multi-step instructions.