Caring for someone with dementia:

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Created date

January 22nd, 2019
Using the major senses, like touch, smell, and taste, can be calming to someone with dementia as well as help them to focus.

Using the major senses, like touch, smell, and taste, can be calming to someone with dementia as well as help them to focus.

Research has provided insights into making life easier for caregivers of people with dementia. Here are more tips for making your day run smoother.

Stimulate the senses

An interesting fact about the course of dementia is that some of the major senses tend to stay intact for a long time. This can work to everyone’s advantage.

“The sense of touch is a powerful way to connect with someone and provide a calming feeling,” says Cara Skrypchuk, director of memory support services for Erickson Living. “For example, massaging someone’s hands or feet can help a person relax while providing cognitive stimulation.”

You can use the sense of smell as a tool to help guide someone if they are unable to remember how to perform a particular task. “If someone doesn’t want to take a shower, put the bar of soap or a drop of the shampoo in their hand to smell and it can trigger their brain to know it’s time to shower,” Skrypchuk says.

Aromatherapy is also a powerful way to stimulate the brain. “At Erickson’s memory care community, we use scents that are reminiscent of home, such as baking aromas,” Skrypchuk says.

Research is increasingly supporting the benefits of aromatherapy. For instance, the National Cancer Institute supports its use to relieve anxiety.

The sense of taste also tends to stay intact, and allowing your loved one to enjoy favorite foods is a good way to stimulate memory. “Think of how you feel when you eat a favorite food,” Skrypchuk says. “You remember where you were when you first enjoyed it, what you were doing, and how much pleasure it gave you.”

Some people with dementia lose their appetite, so occasionally trying something new may help stimulate their appetite, especially if they were a “foodie” in their younger years.

Overall, evaluate their environment and think about how to make it interesting in ways that involve all the senses. “Use interesting colors and textures,” Skrypchuk says. “Have photos of family, friends, and favorite places in accessible places. Play soft background music throughout the day.”

Diffuse difficult situations

Symptoms of dementia can include personality changes, troubles with performing tasks, loss of reasoning skills, and trouble with verbal language, to name a few. “These symptoms can cause someone with dementia to be angry and frustrated,” Skrypchuk says. “Not knowing how to handle the symptoms of dementia can be especially hard on caregivers.”

“Sometimes when a person with dementia is communicating with physical actions, it could be related to pain or another symptom of illness, due to the loss of the ability to verbalize the problem,” Skrypchuk adds.

“We need to promptly treat any physical problems and make sure chronic conditions are well managed,” says Jennifer Tam, M.D., medical director at Linden Ponds, an Erickson Living community in Hingham, Mass. “Even a minor illness can cause a significant upheaval in daily functioning.”

Frustration can result when anyone, much less someone with dementia, is blocked from doing something they want to do. “People with dementia do not necessarily lose their desire to manage their lives and daily activities,” Skrypchuk explains. “Try to guide them to help with dinner, clean up, or do a simple task related to their former career or skills.”

Safety of their loved one is a priority for caregivers, but sometimes you need to pick your battles. “You may need to evaluate whether something really threatens their safety or if there is a way for you to make a potentially dangerous situation safer,” Skrypchuk says. “For example, if someone keeps trying to go outside, it may be better for you to permit it, but accompany them. Suggest going for a walk.”

Structure your days in a similar pattern. 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.”

Communication skills

• 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, practice empathy.

• Speak slowly and clearly.

• Use short sentences about single topics.

• Do not give multistep instructions.

• Do not criticize or correct.

• Do not interrupt.

Fast Fact:

The Alzheimer’s Association website ( has a Caregiver Center that provides detailed information about dementia-related illness, where to find care options and support, safety concerns, personal and medical care, and financial and legal planning.