Foundation of America

Supporting Your Loved One with Dementia

When faced with the challenges of a dementia diagnosis, it’s easy to focus on the disease itself rather than the person living with it. Rev. Lynn Casteel Harper, a minister, nursing home chaplain and author of On Vanishing: Mortality, Dementia, and What It Means to Disappear, shares her recommendations for how to support your loved one through each step of their dementia journey.

See your loved one as a person rather than a victim of disease

Don’t define your loved one solely by their disease state. “Negative stigma and attitudes actually push along people’s neurological diminishment,” says Rev. Casteel. “We envision people with dementia often as having disappeared from themselves.” Instead of focusing on the person’s memory loss or behavioral changes, encourage what they can do.

Support familiar routines

Familiar routines that engage the senses are important. Going for a walk at the same time each morning or attending a music class every Thursday are examples of routines people can rely on and expect. Accept that your person may develop new rituals over time.

Don’t rush to fill the silence

“We’re trained from an early age to fill the silence,” says Rev. Casteel. “We must be willing to sit in silence to receive responses.” Instead, slow down your breath. Sit with your person. Hold their hand to reassure them of your presence. Enjoy the silence, together.

The greatest gifts

Ask yourself: “What gifts may I offer this person, and what gifts is this person offering me?” A gift may be as simple as a smile or a hug. Acknowledge what your loved one brings to their world. Above all, Rev. Casteel reminds caregivers, “Take time when you need it. You’re doing the best you can. Know that that’s enough.”

Utilize faith resources

If you have a connection with a faith community, invite them to stay involved with you and your loved one. Familiar rituals, prayers, holiday celebrations, and songs offer important touchstones of meaning and care that don’t hinge on cognitive capacity.

Redirect anxieties

During moments of anxiety, your loved one may say that they’re scared or can’t remember where they are. Reassure them and ask, “What do you see, hear, feel?” to redirect the conversation away from the anxiety.

Engage and communicate to reassure

It’s important to meet your person where they are in the moment. People living with dementia may communicate in ways that we’re not used to. Remember, all actions and speech are meaningful even if we don’t understand. Observe cues (smiling, swaying to music) and assume that your person is trying to express something important. We know that when we’re communicating with someone with dementia it’s best to ask yes or no questions that don’t hinge on recall.

This article originally appeared in Alzheimer’s TODAY, Volume 17, Number 1, published by the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. View the entire issue by clicking here.