Coping with dementia

Modify your language
By making a few changes in how you communicate you may be able to lower confusion and argument. For example, making choices can be difficult for someone suffering from dementia. Rather than phrasing things in the form of a question – “Would you like to go to see your doctor today?” use declarative statements like “Today you’re seeing your doctor.” It may also be simpler to go ahead and prepare meals rather than to ask what the person would like to eat. Keep your sentences short and factual.

When speaking with a person suffering from dementia, it may help to keep distraction to a minimum. Turn off the television. Often a touch on the arm or knee to focus their attention before you speak is useful, as is making eye contact.

One controversial area when caring for loved ones suffering from dementia is the question of the “little white lie.” Our instincts often lead us towards complete honesty. But it may be worth considering whether it is really harmful to allow a loved one to think, for example, that he or she is accompanying you to lunch and to the doctor – and happens to get checked over at the same time – than to have an argument about whether there’s a need for him or her to see the doctor. Clearly this is a very personal decision, but remember that caregiving is a complicated and difficult role – occasionally greasing the wheels of daily life with a bit of fantasy may be well worth it.

Managing frustration
Even the most experienced and caring caregiver will have days – and even weeks and months – where things become overwhelming. It’s very important to seek support and to remember to go easy on yourself. And it’s important to learn the signs of your own frustration and develop strategies to cope.

Signs of frustration that may become overwhelming include shortness of breath, cramps, a knotted feeling, headache, chest pains, cravings for food or drugs, and an overall lack of patience. You can address frustration on several levels. On the physical level, removing yourself from the situation, even for just a few breaths, and breathing deeply can help. A brisk walk can also help, as can doing some yoga (perhaps using a DVD) or taking a bath. Regular exercise can also help.

On the level of the mind, there are some kinds of thinking that contribute to frustration. One of these is to over-generalize (this always happens, this never works out). Discounting the positive is another way of thinking that can add to a sense of stress – for example, overlooking the good things that you do or allowing yourself to be a caring and loving, yet imperfect caregiver. A third negative pattern of thinking is to live in a world of “shoulds” – he should go to sleep now; she should enjoy this dessert – rather than accepting the days as they come.

For each pattern of thinking, try to counter the thoughts in a ‘dialogue’ with yourself. Remind yourself that things are not always difficult, and don’t subject yourself to overly high standards of care. And try to let go of expectations that you find continually disappointing.