I learned a lot while working in the memory care unit near my home. Many of the residents were pleasant almost all of the time, while others were sullen and obviously unhappy. I did my best to keep a positive attitude, especially to the ones who were not happy campers. Not that I did everything right, but my nature is to please so I did my best to smile, touch and encourage.
Chances are you’re caring for just one person with dementia. There were eighteen in the memory care unit where I worked. Regardless, you still might have to deal with a negative aspect to your loved ones’ personality. The best advice I can give is, “don’t take it personally.” They’re not frustrated with you. They feel isolated and perhaps scared. They’ve lost themselves and cannot figure out how to get back to their old self.
One thing that really helped me communicate with my residents actually came quite natural to me. I’m a hugger. I’m a toucher. I have always smiled a lot. I made it my mission to make the residents smile and have a good day. That meant being a pretty good duck and letting anything negative just roll off my back. I reminded myself how hard it must be to live in what Bob DeMarco, founder or the Alzheimer Reading Room, calls Alzheimer World. He said he had to remind himself that his mother who was suffering from dementia wasn’t in the “real world” but in a world all to herself. She couldn’t come into his world so he went into hers.
Giving a hug or a gentle pat on the hand or back makes a connection into the world of dementia. It’s a reinforcement that you care. It tells them they are not alone. Keeping it positive means forgetting that they’ve asked the same question over and over again. One tip I’ve seen over and over again is to not correct them. Give them a smile, look them in the eye, answer their question with a gentle touch.
Strategies to Manage a Bad Day
When someone is having a really bad day remember that a really good strategy is redirecting. Change the subject. Take them to a different room or even outside. Put on some nice music, preferably something you know they like to listen to. Let them watch a favorite television program. If you can record programs, have a number of their favorites ready to watch. I used to put on “The Cowboys” at least three times a week for my eighteen residents. Every time they watched it was like it was their first time seeing it — and they loved it!
Make sure they don’t need to use the restroom. See if they need something to eat. Keep smiling and reassuring them that all is okay. It’s very important to keep them hydrated, so give them fluids often. Urinary tract infections can make their dementia ten times worse and it’s one of the top reasons that elders end up in the hospital.
One question I got a lot from my residents was, “Is it time to eat?” It doesn’t do any good to tell them what time lunch or dinner will be served. It’s much better just to say, “soon.”
People with dementia cannot control their emotions but we can. We can choose to stay positive even when they are mean and hateful. We can choose to use a gentle voice and touch even when they are yelling. We can look beyond their pain and reassure them that they are not alone — that we are there to help. We can use our touch, our smiles and good eye contact that tells them they are valued.
May you know with everything that is in you that your act of caring is the ultimate act of love.