We understand the fear of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia is real. Sometimes this fear prevents individuals showing symptoms, and their caregivers, from seeking the knowledge, education, and support needed to help them adjust to their new normal. Taking action early helps assure you can have the best quality of life together with family and friends for as long as possible.
Cognitive health is the ability to clearly think, learn and remember. It’s critical for everyday activities like cooking, paying bills or balancing your checkbook, taking medicine, and driving.
Inherited genetics can influence your cognitive health, but so can lifestyle and environmental factors. This is good news because you can manage or change some of these factors to reduce your risk of cognitive decline, including:
- Staying engaged and having a sense of purpose
- Fostering your creativity
- Managing high blood pressure and depression
- Increasing physical activity
- Eating healthy foods
- Reading more (note: reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body; reading reduces the rate of memory decline by 32%)
- Limiting alcohol and tobacco consumption
- Increasing sleep
- Socializing and having fun
“I’m having a senior moment” is a phrase often used to joke about forgetfulness. But people of all ages have moments of forgetfulness.
Poking humor at forgetfulness can be hurtful and perpetuates fear and stigma in dementia. Dementia is when one loses their cognitive function to think, remember and reason, and their behavioral abilities. For some, this loss of function impacts their personality style, language skills, ability to pay attention, or even their visual perception.
There are many different forms of dementia. The most common is Alzheimer’s and it is hard to see a loved one impacted by this disease.
Build your community: No one should have to experience the declining cognitive health of a loved one alone. Many people have been where you are — don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for help
Here are some tips to best engage with someone living with dementia:
- Recognize that dementia can’t be controlled. Dementia is NOT something a person can control, nor does a person have a choice over how it impacts them. It’s a progressive and chronic disease, not a mental illness, in which at least two parts of the brain are dying. People living with dementia often fluctuate between awareness and anger.
- Skill is lost before strength. People living with dementia have awareness that they are losing skill. Their biggest fears are looking incompetent and losing control, which may cause them to withdraw in the early stages. All forms of dementia attack more on the left side of the brain where vocabulary, speech production, and comprehension reside.
- Reframe your thinking. No one wants to eat the doughnut because of the hole; the hole is what makes the donut. People living with dementia are not less; they are whole with what they have left. Let go of what you had or what your relationship was and focus on what is possible in the relationship instead.
- Control impulsive reactions. When they notice something, they usually react to it. So if a caregiver wears a pin, the person living with dementia may reach out to touch the pin, which could result in inappropriate touching. It’s the role of caregivers and loved ones to control their impulse to react and realize the person living with dementia wasn’t trying to touch them inappropriately; they just wanted to touch the pin.
- Watch your words. You may have already noticed this article uses the phrase “person living with dementia.” That’s purposeful: not only putting the word person first but following it with “living with dementia.” A natural question to ask people living with dementia is “don’t you remember?” A statement like this is insensitive. It’s like approaching a person with an oxygen tank and telling them to breathe better. Your words should accurately describe what’s happening. If someone you know in the early stages is saying something like, “I’m going crazy,” say “no, you’re losing some of your thinking.” Remember: hearing isn’t lost with dementia but eventually comprehension of what is being said will be.
- The relationship is most critical, not the outcome of one encounter. We’re human and sometimes our patience buttons will be pushed. It takes two to tango — or tangle. By managing our own behavior, actions, words, and reactions, we can change the outcome of an interaction. Being right doesn’t necessarily translate into a good outcome. If what you are trying is not working, stop, think it through, and re-approach it in a different way.
- Follow cues. Greet the person living with dementia before you connect with them. Read their visual cues. For example, extend out your arms and if the person living with dementia doesn’t reciprocate, they don’t want a hug. If sitting, present yourself at a 90-degree angle and at the person’s knee instead of facing them so they don’t view you as confrontational. To help move conversations forward, use “either/or” options or “this/that” questions. Repeat words the person said to help them find the words they’re looking for instead of giving them the words. When we say the word they can’t find, it makes them feel incompetent. The brain benefits when sparked by curiosity and engagement.
Find the joy: Dementia and Alzheimer’s can feel defeating, but that doesn’t mean you won’t share special moments. Focus on the possibilities. Cultivate and hold on to the moments that bring you and/or the person living with dementia in your life joy.
Dementia Friendly York/Adams County
Looking for support and tips to help you? Click here to learn about the local chapter of Dementia Friendly America (DFA), a national network of communities, organizations, professionals, and individuals working to ensure that people living with Alzheimer’s disease or another related dementia, and their caregivers, are supported by the community.
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