Being a caregiver for someone who has a memory deficit can be extremely challenging. It becomes even more difficult when that person is unaware of their dementia or any other limitations associated with it. Dementia can directly impact a person’s ability to follow directions, can compromise their safety, impedes problem-solving and abstract reasoning. It can cause them to be impulsive or unrealistic about their abilities. There are things you can do and approaches you should avoid as a caregiver facing these parameters.
From an emotional standpoint, it can be extremely frustrating for a person with dementia to be told they should not be doing tasks they believe they are very competent to manage. Any caregiver trying to create a safer environment may be on the receiving end of angry outbursts and defensiveness from the person with dementia whom they are trying to keep safe and protect. Here are some suggestions about how caregivers can approach working with a person with dementia who is unaware of it:
- Communicate in a calm manner. Be as empathetic and supportive as you possibly can. Be aware of the tone of your voice and the message you are sending and how it is or is not being received. Also be aware of your body language and facial expressions and what they convey.
- If you find yourself starting to get angry or stressed remove yourself or take a time out for your own sake rather than arguing. Take a break from the conversation or task at hand. If it safe to remove yourself from the person you are watching give yourself a few minutes to take a deep breath, regroup your thoughts, and calm down.
- Try to separate the person from the disease. This is tricky but important. Remind yourself the person with dementia is not intentionally trying to be contrary. The disease is causing their memory loss or inability to do the things they used to. Sometimes recognizing why someone is behaving in a negative way helps you get to be in their shoes and makes you feel less attacked and more understanding.
- Don’t engage in arguments about who is right or wrong. That won’t help anyone. All that does is reinforce the deficits the people with dementia have causing them to dig in and not do what you need them to do. Does it really matter if they think it is Thursday and you know it is Friday? The best thing to do is to distract or disengage from that conversation and focus on something that is neutral or something you know they will enjoy. People with memory problems may confabulate, or make up answers to explain things that happen. Just let them say their version of events and then move on to something else.
- Try to pick tasks you can do together and work as a team. Everyone wants and needs to feel wanted and useful. Maybe they can help put laundry in the washing machine or put dirty dishes in the dishwasher. Even if they make a mistake you can always pull the dirty dish out later if the dishes were clean.
- Try to create as positive a relationship as you can. Be friendly and warm with the person you are caring for. They will be more apt to work with you than against you if they sense you are on their side or feel friendly towards them. You can do this by trying to give them as much control as possible about things that need to be done, and when and how they should be done. This makes them feel better when they believe they are making these decisions.
- Give them two choices that are both acceptable options. For example lay out a blue and red shirt ask them to pick the one they want to wear that day. Do you want chicken or tuna for lunch today?
- Break down the task that need to be done in as few and simple steps as you possibly can. Make it as easy as possible for them to do chores or tasks. Have the watering can out and put water in it and the flower on the counter.
- Don’t infantilize the person. Don’t talk around them or about them when they are in front of you as if they were not there. Talk directly at them using their name. It is important to continue to reinforce people and their names to enhance memory.
- Don’t remind them what they can’t do and reinforce what they can do. Nobody wants to hear all of the things they can’t do. It is human nature to crave approval from others. Maybe grandma can’t play guitar anymore but she still has a beautiful voice. Pick a song you know she can sing and ask her to sing it for you.
- Validate their fears or concerns. Try to express your understanding about any fears, frustrations or anxiety they discuss. Be as empathetic as possible and validate their feelings as best you can. If they express fear for example, tell them “I know you were scared by that loud noise, I would be too. I am going to see what I can do to make it stop or make the noise less loud.”
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