Caring for a patient with dementia can be difficult, especially if that patient is a family member or friend. Seeing a loved one in decline can bring up some heavy emotions and present us with a frustrating new set of challenges when it comes to their health and well-being. To help you become the most effective and compassionate caregiver possible, here are six things every caregiver should know.
1. Understand the Changes in Your Patient
Many of the symptoms of dementia appear gradually, so it is essential caregivers observe new symptoms or those that worsen. Changes in symptoms can also bring about changes in behavior, and you may need to re-evaluate your care plan or schedule another visit to the doctor.
Memory loss is often the first and most obvious sign of dementia, but some not-so-obvious signs of dementia include depression, aggression and confabulation. These symptoms can be devastating for a caregiver to observe but it is crucial for caregivers to adapt to any changes in symptoms to avoid exacerbating them.
2. Learn Effective Communication
One of the first things to diminish in a dementia patient is their ability to communicate. Words and thoughts become jumbled, and it can be frustrating for the patient to hold a conversation or ask for things they need.
The key to effective communication with a person suffering dementia is patience. Often, your loved one will know exactly what they want to say but may take some time to find the words to express it.
Never patronize your patient or exclude them from conversations with others. As much as possible, allow them to speak for themselves, especially about matters concerning their health and well-being. If they answer, acknowledge their response, whether it was relevant to the question or not.
When you speak to them, address them by name and make eye contact to maintain their attention. Speak slowly and clearly, rephrasing questions or statements if they seem to have trouble comprehending.
Finally, be aware of your facial expressions and body language, as these modes of communication can be just as impactful as your words. Make sure you appear relaxed, receptive and unthreatening.
3. Their Behavior Changes, Their Identity Doesn't
The behavioral changes that are symptomatic of dementia can be frustrating for caregivers and can make you feel as though your loved one is no longer the person they used to be. Dementia patients often feel this way as well, but have trouble expressing the emotions surrounding their symptoms. This can cause them to feel alienated and withdraw from social interactions. So, it is also important to remember it is not the person that is to blame for these changes in personality, but rather the disease.
You can help them regain their sense of identity by encouraging them to do things that they used to love. Social activities, creating art and gentle exercise, as well as reminiscing, will help them to remember the way they were, make them feel valued and help them retain a positive sense of self. These activities are also a wonderful way to improve your patient's quality of life.
4. Don't Underestimate Their Abilities
Although their abilities will change as their cognitive faculties slow down, this does not mean your loved one is unable to perform tasks independently. In fact, research into dementia and well-being have shown that allowing a dementia patient to remain as independent as possible for as long as possible can improve their quality of life significantly.
Providing opportunities for independence will require a lot of patience and planning. However, there are a few ways you can facilitate independent everyday tasks at home. Perform a risk assessment of their home and make sure they have household aids, such as grab bars, to make performing daily tasks easier.
5. Reach Out for SupportCaring for a dementia patient can be stressful and frustrating at times, and it is important for you to know you are not alone when you feel like you are struggling. There are many support and respite services available, but some of the best support comes from dementia group meetings or online forums attended by fellow caregivers who can offer advice, share experiences and provide emotional support.
6. Practice Self-CareFeeling overwhelmed by your responsibilities as a caregiver is a very real concern that can lead to physical and mental strain. Both the emotional toll and the sheer exhaustion of caring for a loved one with dementia can cause you to experience "burnout," and a burnt-out caregiver is unable to care for their patient in the same compassionate and thoughtful way. So, it is necessary to practice some self-care.
Participating in some simple things you enjoy can be enough to rejuvenate your body and spirit and help remind you of who you are outside of your caregiving responsibilities.
Caregiving for a patient with dementia can be a challenging experience, but also highly rewarding. Understanding your patient and reflecting on your care practices will improve the quality of life for your patient or loved one.