Strategies to Support Individuals with Alzheimer’s & Other Dementias

By: Whitney Thompson, MPH, CHES

Dementia Care Specialist for the ADRC of SW WI (Grant, Green, Iowa, & Lafayette Counties)

There are many strategies that caregivers and loved ones can use to help instill the highest quality of life for an individual living with dementia. It is important to remember that everyone has the same core needs whether or not we have dementia. These core needs include: feeling useful, having our self-esteem boosted, giving and receiving love, and being able to care for ourselves and others. Keep these needs in the back of your mind when you are interacting with someone with dementia. You will need to adapt situations and tasks so that things are appropriate for your loved one’s current abilities, but there are many ways to improve or maintain their quality of life. For example, if your loved one has always enjoyed cooking, but can no longer think through the entire process of making a meal, they may enjoy being responsible for a simpler task such as rinsing the vegetables. This allows them to feel useful and needed, which is vital to anyone’s happiness. Always try to instill the greatest amount of dignity and independence possible.

When your loved one is in the early stages of dementia, one of the most important things to remember is to help foster independence while ensuring safety. If it takes them more time to get dressed, make a decision, or prepare a meal, but they still enjoy doing it and are safe, try to let them continue. It can be very tempting to take over tasks because as a caregiver it is easier and faster, but this can take away from their independence and quality of life. You may need to adapt tasks. It is helpful to break tasks down into smaller, simpler steps. In addition, helping to organize and create familiar daily routines can be supportive. For example, you can get a large calendar to put up in their home that has appointments and other events listed, or post notes in the home that can remind them of certain tasks or events.

As dementia progresses into the middle stage, it is important to continue to adapt tasks, situations, and communication to help support the individual. You can continue to instill independence and choice, but you need to simplify things to avoid creating overwhelming situations. For example, if you want to engage them in an activity, give them two options to choose from, saying “do you want to go for a walk or do a puzzle?” This gives them choice while avoiding the frustration that can come from too much information. Another key strategy is to continue to give simple, one step directions. If you say “you need to go brush your teeth,” this involves many steps and can be too much to process. Instead, break it down into step-by-step directions. Also, remember the importance of a calm environment. A busy, loud environment can be overwhelming. One-on-one conversations in calm environments may be more enjoyable for the individual. Another strategy that may be helpful is to use visual memory aids. For example, individuals with dementia can become confused about where they are, but putting a picture of the toilet on the door to your bathroom can serve as a visual cue and can help them navigate.

In the later stages of dementia, individuals with the condition will rely on others for most, if not all of their care. Appropriate non-verbal communication is important in interacting with someone with dementia at any stage of the condition, but it is crucial in the later stages. Someone with progressed dementia may not be able to verbally communicate or understand what you are telling them, but they pick up on feelings and emotions. Try to have a positive attitude, smile, maintain eye contact, and have a calm approach. In addition, use visual cues before you are going to do a task. For example, if you want to give them a drink of water, show them the glass and what you are about to do. Another strategy for interaction is sensory stimulation. Create (or enlist the help of a family member) a playlist of music that your loved one enjoyed in their younger days and have them listen to it. This can have an uplifting or relaxing effect on some individuals. Other sensory activities can include reading prayers to the individual, doing a soft hand massage, using aroma therapy (smells that they may enjoy like lilacs, etc.), or assisting them outside (if it is safe and appropriate) to feel the sun on their skin and breeze hit their face.

These activities are very individualized. Try to think about their life story and things that may trigger positive memories and reactions. The strategies may work for some individuals and not others and on some days and not others. Keep trying creative ways to interact with your loved one. You are likely to have some beautiful moments!

For more information or additional assistance, contact the Aging & Disability Resource Center in Grant County to get connected to the Dementia Care Specialist by calling 877-794-2372