Tips for Caring for a Loved One with Dementia

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My grandmother will turn 93 years old on Thanksgiving Day this year. Usually, she spends the holidays with my family at our home, talking and laughing over my mom’s homemade shrimp mirlitons and savory turkey; however, this year will be different. Instead, my grandmother will spend her Thanksgiving, and her birthday, in a skilled nursing facility because she has dementia.

You may be thinking, “Wow! She’s 93! Of course she is going to have memory loss and not able to live on her own.” But my grandmother has lived on her own up until seven months ago. She was very active within the community, went to the movie theater with her friends and was still living a youthful life until recently.

It’s extremely hard to accept these changes in a woman I have grown up admiring. Now, she is the woman I visit weekly in a nursing home, sitting in her bed, telling strange and fantastical stories. It’s hard to have a conversation with her, and trying to get her out of bed and into the beautiful sunroom at the home, when she refuses to be her active, normal self can be difficult. It’s hard to not argue with her when she says she’s okay and can live on her own, and she doesn’t understand why she’s there.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1.4 million people reside in nursing homes across the United States. Throughout the past few months, our family has learned these useful tips to make our visits more pleasurable:

Don’t ever argue: When your loved one says today is Christmas day, but really it’s a hot and humid day in July, simply and nicely explain to them that it’s not Christmas. If they argue, simply retreat and change the subject to something positive.

Deflect the conversation: When your loved one starts telling a bizarre, made-up story, deflect the conversation. Change the subject to get their mind on something else. I find that talking with my grandmother about her travels when she was younger is a great topic to help her not only remember information, but to also put a smile on her face.

Don’t say “Don’t you remember this?”: Your loved ones want to remember. They want to remember so badly that it can make them angry and upset when they can’t. Try to avoid instances where you think it would be simple for them to remember something as recent as what they ate for breakfast that morning.

Don’t bring up the people that have died in their life: Sometimes I feel as if talking about her late husband, my grandfather, will help her remember the past. And sometimes it does help. But most times, my grandmother feels saddened thinking about him. Try to avoid the subject of death altogether.

Dr. David Houghton, Ochsner neurologist specializing in cognitive and memory disorders, recommends the three ‘Ps’: patience, positivity and participation. He believes that care partners who really participate with patience and positivity help guide folks with dementia along the best path available.

Luckily, the future of dementia care is benefiting from a technology boom in medicine. New scans that “tag” damaged brain cells are being developed to improve the accuracy of diagnosis. Telemedicine can use digital audio/video feeds to provide virtual patient visits – connecting specialists with patients and their care partners in the convenience of their local clinics or homes. Clinical trials are ongoing internationally to investigate potential causes and cures. As such, Ochsner Neuroscience Institute is energized to remain on the forefront of cognitive care for our region and beyond.

This year, on my grandmother’s 93rd birthday, Thanksgiving Day, it will be different and difficult. But we will bring her cake, flowers and balloons. We will listen to her favorite songs and continue to laugh with her and bring her joy, and try our best to make her last weeks, months or years as happy as possible.

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