According to research published in JAMA Neurology, about one in three Americans over the age of 65 has either dementia or some other form of cognitive impairment. But if there’s an older parent, relative, or friend in your life who just received their diagnosis, you might be at a loss for how to help or connect with them right now.
Dementia is a complex illness that gradually alters how your loved one recalls information, communicates, behaves, and performs basic daily tasks. It’s hard to watch someone you care about deal with these changes, but you can be a source of practical and emotional support as they come to terms with this new reality. Here are some actionable ways to be there for your loved one at various stages in their dementia journey.
Treat Your Loved One Like the Same Person They Were
One of the most empowering actions you can take for someone with dementia is to treat them like the individual they are. As this disease progresses, they will require more hands-on assistance, but they’re still the same person you know. It’s important to show them respect and human dignity and to maintain normal interactions for as long as possible. Hold space for two-way conversations. Listen to their anxieties, frustrations, or other difficult emotions. Validate how they feel and offer reassurance that you are in their corner.
Help Them Feel Secure by Establishing a Consistent Routine
Whether you’re a friend, family member, or caregiver, assist your loved one in creating a consistent and easy-to-follow daily routine. Even simple, habitual actions such as putting on clothes, eating meals, doing chores, exercising, and taking care of personal hygiene can overwhelm a person with dementia. But a predictable rhythm will make them feel more secure and less agitated since they’ll know what to expect at any given time. You can also help them write a to-do list if they need a visual reminder of this routine.
Keep Meaningful Objects Around for a Comforting Atmosphere
If your loved one is prone to confusion or anxiety, making their environment feel as homey as possible is crucial. Having cherished family photographs and heirlooms around will cultivate a sense of comfort and safety—not to mention these objects can also help with recall. Showing a senior adult an old photo with personal meaning attached to it can stimulate autobiographical memories and inspire them to talk about what they remember, reports Frontiers in Psychology. This, in turn, can help both of you forge a deeper connection.
Provide Choices to Help Retain a Sense of Control
Feeling out of control can worsen agitation or erratic behavior in someone with dementia, so give your loved one space to exert their own agency. Even if they need help with certain tasks, allow them to take charge of the decisions as much as possible. For instance, when it’s lunchtime, offer a choice between more than one option: “Do you want tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich, or would you rather have a cobb salad with chicken strips?” This sounds like a small gesture, but it tells your loved one their or opinion matters.
Plan Accessible Activities that You Both Can Enjoy Together
Being present is the most valuable way to offer support in this period of uncertainty, so carve out time to spend with your loved one. They might want to process the diagnosis with you, but if not, plan some creative, hands-on activities you can do together to help soothe their emotions and create a welcome distraction. Not only does this communicate solidarity—it has therapeutic benefits as well. Any artistic outlet can improve mood, focus, attention, and memory, points out the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease Reports.
Your Support Can Mean the World to a Loved One with Dementia
Whether your loved one is still trying to make sense of their diagnosis or they’ve been coming to terms with it for a while, your support will mean so much to them. Knowing they have a safe friend or relative to lean on can help make this new reality feel less hopeless and bearable. Dementia is scary, but it’s vital to show up for your loved one.