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Dealing With Dementia: 7 Tips for Caregivers

If someone in your family has been diagnosed with dementia, you may feel sad, angry, or scared for the future. As your loved one experiences progressive memory loss, how will you cope?

Dealing with dementia is difficult for the affected person, of course, but it can be extremely challenging for family caregivers, as well. Memory loss will eventually affect a person's ability to communicate, and the ensuing disconnect can create friction and frustration.

Dementia actually refers to a group of disorders that affect brain function, including the ability to reason and remember things. Alzheimer's disease, Lewy body dementia, and vascular dementia all fall within this category of neurological disease. One of the hallmarks of any type of dementia is progressive memory loss. Mild forgetfulness may be annoying at first, but when the memory loss of advanced dementia sufferers becomes severe, it can present a true challenge to family caregivers.

If you're finding yourself faced with the challenges of caring for someone with dementia and are having troubling adjusting, here are some tips to help you cope:

  • Stay calm. Admittedly, this is easier said than done. When your mother has forgotten where she left her reading glasses for the umpteenth time today, you may feel exasperated -- and that's a perfectly normal reaction. But of course, it's not your mother's fault that she's losing her memory, and it won't help to take it out on her. Instead, try to use visualization or deep breathing techniques to find your center and maintain a sense of calm.
  • Use simple explanations. A person with memory loss may have trouble following complicated rationales. Don't say, "You can't take that aspirin because it interacts with two other medications the doctor gave you." Instead, just say, "The doctor said you can't take aspirin." The important thing is getting them to take the right action.
  • Use pictures or photographs. If your loved one has severe memory loss that makes it difficult to recall even the names of family members, keep photographs on hand so they can point to the person instead of using a name. You can also clip out magazine pictures of common objects -- coffee cups, eyeglasses, etc. -- and glue them to index cards to help your family member communicate.
  • Avoid correcting. If your father calls you by your brother's name, there's no need to point out the error. It will only make your father feel bad to realize he misspoke. Stay focused on the big picture, and try not to let minor hiccups upset you.
  • Don't take it personally. If your loved one makes an error, let it slide. Remember, they're not being forgetful to annoy you. Even if they can't remember your name, it doesn't mean they love you any less. They simply have no control over the memory loss process and can't recall basic things as well as they could before.
  • Take time for yourself. Caring for someone with dementia can take a toll on your mood and energy. Be sure to schedule time to be alone in order to recharge your emotional batteries. Go for an afternoon bike ride, start an early-morning meditation practice, or learn to enjoy the time you spend in the kitchen if you cook for your loved one. You can't care for others effectively if you're running yourself ragged.
  • Use laughter. When you discover your mother's reading glasses aren't missing at all -- they've been perched atop her head the whole time -- go ahead and have a good laugh. Forgetfulness can produce some absurd situations, and you might as well laugh at them. If you treat minor mix-ups as silly mistakes, they can become therapeutic moments rather than annoyances.

Most importantly, remember that what you're doing for your loved one is a profound gesture of care and affection. Dealing with dementia presents unique challenges for caregivers, but it also affords a wonderful opportunity to get to know your relative better and to offer them the loving care that only a family member can provide.

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