Tips for new carers: solving the difficulties of dementia
Although everyone living with dementia will experience the condition differently, there are sure to be difficult times ahead. To mark Dementia Action Week this year we want to support the carers out there who may be new to their caring role by giving some guidance on how to manage difficult situations that can arise when caring for someone with dementia.
If you’re a first-time carer for a loved one who has been diagnosed with dementia, you may be feeling nervous or anxious about what to expect. According to Carers UK, 6000 people take on a caring responsibility EVERY DAY so it’s important you realise you are not alone and that your best IS good enough.
Caring for someone you love is not always an easy task and you need to be prepared for the difficult situations that may arise so that you can continue caring the best way you know how. In this article we take a look at some of the difficulties dementia can present for the person you are caring for and suggest ways in which you can manage these situations to make daily routines smoother.
First-things-first: what is dementia?
Dementia is an umbrella term for a range of conditions which are characterised by changes in the brain. These conditions, including Alzheimer’s Disease and Lewy Bodies Dementia, often cause difficulties such as confusion, disorientation and short-term memory loss.
Symptoms like these can sometimes lead to a loss or change of appetite, aggressive behaviour, wandering and difficulty with taking medication. Below you’ll find some valuable information on these four situations to help you understand, firstly, WHY they may occur and, secondly, HOW to manage them if they do.
Eating and appetite
If the person you’re caring for has stopped eating, or you’ve noticed they have a significantly lowered appetite, it is important to try to understand what has caused this before looking for a solution that encourages them to eat more. There are numerous reasons why this may happen and there might be more than one explanation.
Depression and physical pain can both cause a decline in food consumption as depression can cause a disinterest in food and pain can cause physical discomfort when eating. There is also the possibility that the person you’re caring for feels rushed or gets frustrated if they cannot eat their food quickly enough, therefore choosing to avoid it altogether. Other reasons for their lack of appetite may include a dislike of the environment or setting in which they eat, or they may even have difficulty actually recognising their food.
Solutions and advice
It is important to try and fit the solution around the individual rather than following generic advice. For example, you will know if they have a preferred routine or time to eat and what foods they enjoy eating.
Portion sizes and food temperature – if the person living with dementia takes a long time to eat their food they may get embarrassed, frustrated or be put off by the food going cold. Reducing portion sizes or investing in keep warm plates and bowls are ideal ways to keep food from going cold and ensure it is still appetising.
Flavours and types of food – trying different types, flavours and textures of food is a good way to keep meal times exciting and may make you aware of any appetite or taste changes. However, if you know that the person living with dementia only likes certain foods you can adapt their meals around their preferences. For example, if they prefer sweet foods, adding a little honey or sugar to savoury foods can encourage them to eat more nutritious meals.
Crockery and utensils – coloured or uniquely designed crockery, cutlery and drinking utensils can keep meal times interesting and fun, whilst also being practical. There are many different utensils available with various handles, sizes and features that make them easier to grip for those whose dementia causes pain and stiffness in the fingers, wrists or hands. Coloured plates and bowls can also help someone with dementia recognise their food. Overall, the type of utensils being used can help to make mealtimes a more comfortable and enjoyable experience.
Environment and atmosphere – the environment someone eats in can affect their appetite. Being in a clean, relaxed atmosphere is ideal and encouraging the person you care for to get involved in making dinner or setting the table is a good way to stay connected and communicate during meal times.
Keep it appetising – the appearance of food will have a big impact on appetite, so presenting meals and snacks in an attractive and fun way will make them look appetising and encourage the person to want to eat.
Managing frustration and aggression
If a family member or someone you care for with dementia exhibits aggressive behaviour it is important to try and establish the cause of the outburst. Amongst other things, it may be due to pain, fatigue, frustration or boredom. Noticing patterns that you can avoid in future is ideal to help find a solution, for example they may become frustrated at a certain time, place or with particular people.
There are ways that you can help someone with dementia to stay calm, comfortable and relaxed in order to avoid these situations or deal with them when they occur. Although you may be able to help in these circumstances, it is important to consider your own safety and whether the person you’re caring for is in danger of injuring themselves or someone else. Charities such as Dementia UK or Alzheimer’s Society, support groups and counsellors are ideal places to seek further support about aggression and dementia.
Solutions and advice
Social activities – involving someone living with dementia in conversation and frequent social activities can make them feel more included and reduce frustration or boredom. Social events can be as simple as having a meal together or going out for tea and coffee.
Physical activity – frequent exercise is a great way to minimise boredom and agitation, as well as improving overall health, sleep and encouraging social contact. Exercise can include anything from dancing and swimming to lower impact activities like gardening and walking. See if you can find any clubs nearby that play a sport the person you’re caring for would enjoy, such as bowls or skittles.
Routine – where possible, make changes that will avoid stressful situations and then stick to a daily routine that the person you’re caring for is comfortable with. This will help avoid stress from unexpected events and can help to stimulate their memory.
Music and songs – music is a great way to encourage a happy and calm atmosphere. A CD or playlist featuring songs from a happy time can stimulate good feelings and memories. Some people living with dementia also enjoy singing along together, with or without the music – a large print song book is suitable for all ages to enjoy, and encourages co-operation.
If you do find yourself in a situation where the person you’re caring for has become aggressive then stay calm, use a reassuring tone and, if need be, take a step away or leave the room (if you are sure you are both safe). It is important not to argue or return their anger. It can be very difficult to witness aggressive behaviour and outbursts from someone you love or care for. Make sure to seek support if you need it.
When dementia patients wander
Disorientation, confusion and short-term memory loss are all symptoms of dementia which may cause people living with the condition to wander at night or during the day. If the person you care for wanders when they are on their own or during night, they could get lost and find themselves in a dangerous situation.
Solutions and advice
Make home a safe place – keeping hallways and rooms clean, tidy and decluttered is an easy way to reduce the risk of the person you’re caring for falling if they decide to wander. Home lighting, such as the Bright Led Striplight with Movement Sensor, is also essential for keeping areas well-lit to avoid potential hazards when wandering at night.
Sensors – investing in a sensor alarm or motion detectors for different areas of the house can help alert you to someone’s whereabouts when they wander. A Door and Window Alarm can be attached to different doors and windows in the house and will sound a loud alarm to alert you when they are opened. Motion detectors, such as the Border Patrol Safety Beam, will sound an alarm when movement is detected. Sensors give you peace of mind about the whereabouts of someone living with dementia and are ideal for notifying you if the person you care for wanders from a room or tries to leave the house.
Quick contact – some people living with dementia will wander because they are trying to follow a past routine, such as getting ready for work, or because they have forgotten familiar places and directions. If the person you care for wanders at home, labels can be fixed on cupboards or room doors to help with recollection. If someone with dementia is at risk of getting lost when out on their own, you should consider having someone to accompany them. However, there are also personal alarms and easy-to-use mobile phones that can be used to call you if they become lost or confused.
Keeping up with medication management
If someone living with dementia is taking regular medication, they may become confused or forget which medication to take and when to take it. They can also experience difficulty with opening fiddly packaging or dislike taking their medication.
Solutions and advice
Reminders – drawing or printing off a medication timetable can help someone with dementia to remember the correct medication at the correct time. Alternatively, we offer pill organisers and automatic pill dispensers that have separate compartments for different days and times. Pill dispensers also feature various alarms to alert someone to take their medicine; the alarm will turn off once the pills are tipped out of the tray. You could fill one of these medication reminder aids for the person you’re caring for or fill it with them at the start of the week to be sure they’re taking the right medication.
Cutting or grinding pills – a pill cutter and grinder will make big tablets easier to swallow so someone living with dementia can comfortably keep up with their medication routine.
Popping tablets – a pill popper is ideal for someone who can still take their medication independently, but has difficulty popping tablets from the packet.
Advice and support for dementia carers
There are both online and local support groups where you can talk to others who have been affected by dementia. People in a similar situation may be available to give advice from their own experiences and it’s also a way for you to share any advice you have with others. If you are looking for more information about support that is available for carers, friends and family of people living with dementia, you can visit the support pages for Dementia UK and Alzheimer’s Society.
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