Forgetfulness and memory problems don't automatically point to dementia. These are normal parts of aging and can also occur due to other factors, such as fatigue. Still, you shouldn't ignore the symptoms. Here, registered nurse and founder of Care at Home, Paula Maher offers practical advice to the families and carers of people in both the early and more advanced stages of dementia.
KNOW THE SIGNS
• Consistently forgetting recently learned information is one of the most common early signs of dementia. Frequent bouts of forgetfulness and an inability to recall information are also tell-tale signs.
But don't panic if someone starts forgetting names, appointments or in which room they left something. This is not unusual and in fact, most of us do it.
• Keep an eye on how the 'forgetfulness' manifests itself such as your loved one forgetting how to complete simple tasks, asking the same questions repeatedly, regularly struggling to find the right words or changing the conversation abruptly.
• People with dementia may find simple tasks difficult to complete; from making a cup of tea or preparing a meal, to forgetting how to play a hand of cards. This can affect their level of confidence. But there are things that you can do to help and by putting in place simple DIY tools, you can help them maintain their independence.
• Create step-by-step guides for tasks and place them around the house to help rejig their memory. Leave instructions next to the kettle on how to make a cup of tea; leave a note in the sitting room on how to turn on the TV and place frequently used telephone numbers on a sheet next to the phone.
• For the tech savvy and those in the early stages of dementia, download the MindMate app to a smart phone or tablet. The app aims to instil confidence through its user-friendly software, featuring engaging and interactive games to stimulate cognitive thinking.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC
• Music plays its part in creating a comfortable environment that can help dementia suffers to feel calm. Music can enhance mood and serotine levels, which is important for anyone who suffers from bouts of depression. It can also ignite memories and help with emotional recall and the right music - make sure to play music they enjoy, it can be truly therapeutic.
LESS STRESS WITH AN ADDRESS
• Dementia suffers can often forget where they are, how they got there or how to get home and can become terribly distressed. Leave a notebook with your contact information in their bag or wallet, stick your address to the back of their mobile phone or attach it to their house keys.
• If their routine includes visiting the same shops, library or community centre, let the owner know of the situation and leave your contact information with them in case it is required. You might feel awkward or may feel that your family situation is private but in the main, you will find people very supportive and overcoming any awkwardness is crucial in helping out.
• You might want to think about a professional carer who can assist with daily outings, which offers real peace of mind.
• Dementia can cause mood swings, can change a person's behaviour and make them upset or even suspicious of family members.
No matter how close you are to the person, you cannot change their behaviour and you may find yourself dealing with unreasonable outbursts, irrational emotions and confusing and difficult situations.
• This can be a challenge and Paula's advice is to be as patient as you can. It's not always easy and your patience will be tried, many times. But to help you both, try to speak slowly and use language that is easy to understand. Don't ask multiple questions of the person and if you need to leave the room to calm down, do it. You're human too.
EVERY VISIT COUNTS
• Paula urges family members and friends to keep visiting the person with dementia, even if they don't recognise you. Whilst it can be very unsettling to find that someone you have known for many years suddenly has no idea who you are, it's obviously not personal and doesn't mean that they don't benefit from your company.
• Visits can have a calming, positive impact and can help alleviate feelings of isolation.
Your visit may not be remembered, but live in that moment and share a story and a joke, enjoy a cup of tea together or take a walk and grab some fresh air; chances are you'll both feel better for it.
LAUGHTER - THE BEST MEDICINE
• Having dementia doesn't mean the person cannot enjoy life and in fact, laughter can help reduce patient anxiety and agitation. The Alzheimer's Society organises some great social outings for those suffering with dementia and their families or carers. It's really important to interact with other people, particularly those in similar situations, and you may find the change in environment is stimulating. Chatting with other families or carers who are going through the same thing is a good opportunity to feel less isolated, let off some steam, and laugh about the things that may drive you crazy.
A LITTLE RESPECT
• The respect that you hold for loved ones or close friends should not diminish just because they have been diagnosed with dementia.
• It's all too easy to start treating them like a child or speaking over the person - usually unintentionally.
• Be aware of your own actions and avoid patronising behaviour as it will disconnect you from them and make communication even more challenging. It's also an ineffective form of communication; remember, you are still speaking with an adult who may just need you to speak more slowly and clearly to be understood.
• It may sound like a cliché but, a smile really does go a long way, and is a great way to instantly connect with the person suffering from dementia.
• If you feel unrelaxed or uptight about a visit to a person with dementia, they are likely to sense this but not understand why. A smile can break any tension and change the mood in the room in an instant.
WHEN NO IS THE ONLY ANSWER
• Learn to understand that when the dementia sufferer repeatedly responds to questions with a 'no', it might just be that they don't fully understand what you are saying.
• To them, saying 'no' seems like a safe option, even if what you are asking is something they might enjoy.
• To counteract this, start a question with a smile, make eye contact and give them a minute to move their attention towards you before you start talking.
MAKE SURE OTHER AREAS OF HEALTH ARE LOOKED AFTER
• Regular check ups with the GP should be part of the routine, as it's critical that the person with dementia stays as physically healthy and active as possible. It's very easy to only focus on the dementia but dental visits and the little things like keeping nails trimmed, a fresh hair cut and maintaining a balanced diet are essential.
DON'T FEEL GUILTY
• Feeling guilty when a loved one develops dementia is commonplace. You feel helpless and sometimes think that you're not doing enough for them. There are days when all you will want to do is scream. That's ok, says Paula Maher but don't feel guilty; the situation is not your fault and guilt is a waste of good energy. It can be all-consuming. Paula advises chatting to another family member about how you feel. Chances are they are feeling the same way and even knowing this can help reduce unwanted feelings of guilt.
• Many people will not want to think or talk about 'end of life' or palliative care, preferred pain relief options, or putting in place a will and what sort of music they would like played at their funeral - as it's completely overwhelming and uncouth to some.
• Once dementia is diagnosed, put aside some time in the early stages to discuss what is important to them, so that everyone is on the same page and tough decisions don't need to be made by their children or close friends later down the track.
• Obtain professional advice when discussing the person with dementia decisions, and their preferred care options. It will allow the conversation to be treated with a sensitive and straightforward manner and they may provide you with insight into things that neither of you have thought about.
• During 'end of life' care make sure that the nurses and doctors are aware of your loved ones decisions and ask them to always inform of you of any decision making. Decisions always need to be made in the person suffering with dementias best interests.
DON'T GO IT ALONE, SEEK SUPPORT
• It's an emotional roller coaster of love, hope, anger, frustration and sadness. Sometimes the responsibility of assisting someone with dementia can be overwhelming and Paula has seen family members experience stress, illness, sleep deprivation and even depression.
• Don't go it alone, advises Paula. Talk to other family members and agree how you can divide visits and responsibilities between you. You may need professional support and there are many home care providers, such as Care at Home that can help you with home visits, meal preparation or even overnight stays to provide some respite.
* For more information visit careathome.ie which provides professional home care services for the elderly, including those with dementia.
Health & Living