Caring for someone with dementia:

New information

Created date

December 13th, 2018
A daughter puts her hand on her mother's shoulder. Her mother looks away and seems a bit confused.

New research shows that addressing what a loved one with dementia can and can’t do is more important than just focusing on their symptoms.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, seven million people in the U.S. are living with Alzheimer’s disease. That number is projected to double by 2050. 

With an increasing prevalence of any condition comes more research, and much dementia-related research is focused on ways to improve quality of life for people suffering from the disease and ways their caregivers can help.

Ability, not disability

Over six million caregivers in this country provide unpaid care for people with dementia-related illness, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Dementia, however, is not limited to short-term memory loss. “Dementia is not a disease, but rather a cluster of symptoms caused by diseases or medical conditions,” says Cara Skrypchuk, director of memory support services for Erickson Living. “Some of the symptoms a person may experience are trouble solving problems or performing tasks, or they may be confused about time and place. They may not be able to speak or comprehend verbal language, or they are unable to recognize people or objects.”

Something to keep in the front of your mind is what your loved one can still do. “Don’t focus on what symptoms they have; rather, assess what they can and can’t do,” Skrypchuk advises. “This is what the research is showing us, and it is how we approach care in our memory support programs.”

Stimulating the part of the brain that works is something that may be hard to figure out, but there are some things that you can always try. “If your loved one can still see but has trouble speaking or comprehending verbal language, use visual or picture cues to communicate, which helps improve verbal communication skills,” Skrypchuk says. “Utilizing a strength-based approach helps stimulate other areas of the brain and improve dementia symptoms.  Music is also considered a strength-based approach, as people rarely lose the ability to comprehend music.”


Since all of the areas of your brain are interconnected, other parts of the brain, such as the short-term memory regions, may be stimulated when long-term memory and good feelings are elicited.

“This knowledge has led to the development of reminiscing therapy,” Skrypchuk says. “Families can help with this by making a memory book. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. You can simply paste a picture from the past on a page and add a short description.”

Writing a description of the picture or the names of the people shown can help anyone use it with your loved one, even if they don’t know them very well.

Other things can help people access long-term memory. For example, offering someone their favorite foods has benefits you may not be able to see. “A favorite food can stimulate long-term memory—someone may think about when and where they used to eat the food, and it can help evoke positive emotions,” Skrypchuk says.

Understanding the meaning of words and actions

Your loved one may not seem to understand what you’re saying, and conversely, you might not understand what they are trying to convey. “This is where you need to focus on feelings,” Skrypchuk says. “Listen to their tone of voice and observe their body language.”

For example, “Maybe your loved one is saying they hate school and they don’t want to go to school,” Skrypchuk continues, “but you know that they’re ill and have a doctor’s appointment that day, so your loved one is telling you they do not want to go to the doctor. Focus on the feelings of the statement, not the words.”

Common mistakes

Caregivers mean the best, but some communication mistakes are common. “Do not use a higher pitched tone of voice as you would when talking to a child,” Skrypchuk says. “Speak normally and use a soft tone.”

Someone with dementia may take a long time to express what they are trying to say. “Do not interrupt or correct your loved one,” Skrypchuk says. “Stay calm and focus on the meaning behind their words.”

Experts say to enter your loved one’s reality. “It’s no longer beneficial to orient someone with dementia to reality,” Skrypchuk says. “If someone thinks it’s 1955, then it’s 1955. If they think you are their sister Mary, then you are.”

As with other interventions, this strategy helps your loved one by entering their reality. Utilize empathy, as this helps build trust and reduces anxiety while making your loved one feel secure.

When other people are around, very often the conversation does not include the person with dementia. “You certainly need support and advice from others,” Skrypchuk says, “but avoid talking about your loved one as if they aren’t in the room. While they may not seem aware of what is being said, they could very well understand that they’re being talked about.”

“It’s good to have other people around to socialize,” Skrypchuk adds, “but the person with dementia should be included. Strengthening relationships and just general social interaction has been shown to help in many ways.”

“Overall, caregivers can really help by letting their loved one maintain as much dignity and independence as possible,” Skrypchuk says. “Allowing them to make small choices makes a big difference.”