How to Help a Loved One with Dementia

Monday 15 February 2021
Memory loss

Table of Contents


I. Emotional Acceptance

II. Preparing for the Future

III. Making a Personal Support Plan

IV. Changes in Communication

V. Planning Activities

VI. Problematic Behaviors

VII. Getting Help


Looking after a loved one who has dementia can take a toll physically and emotionally. Dementia is characterized by a decline in cognitive function, which involves memory, judgment, language, and behavioral impairment. While some forms of dementia are considered reversible, dementia that isn’t reversible can be especially hard to accept. To make things worse, some forms of dementia are progressive and worsen over time. [1]

To treat the symptoms of dementia, doctors commonly prescribe Namenda (memantine) and Aricept (donepezil). Even with these treatment options available, helping someone you love cope with dementia can be incredibly challenging, but there are some guidelines that can help. 

Emotional Acceptance

People who gradually witness their loved one’s memories, skills, and abilities fade often experience grief and denial. For many, these emotions can be debilitating and can lead to inaction. It is easier said than done, but it is important to accept from the start that your loved one may one day be a shadow of their former self. Acceptance can equip you with the mental preparation needed for what lies ahead.

As their dementia worsens, their needs will increase your responsibilities as their caregiver while their ability to show appreciation will decline. Ideally, accepting the reality of this transition may help you cope better. For many, acceptance of their loved one’s condition only arrives later on. [2]

a black and white photograph of two hands holding

Preparing for the Future

Caring for a loved one with dementia can be extremely challenging to do on your own. In the beginning, you might think that the additional work isn’t a burden. Once you are needed on a daily basis, the stress can build up. Getting trained in activities like washing, bathing, incontinence, constipation, and eating may help you prepare for future caregiving duties. Look for resources in your area that offer courses on how to safely lift your loved one if they fall, feed them if they refuse to eat, and calm them down if their sleep schedule becomes erratic. [3] 

When preparing for the future, it is important not to neglect financial and legal issues. Talk to your loved one about who will manage their money matters on their behalf when their mental capacity diminishes. They should also make decisions about updating their will while they are unimpaired. Ask them if they would like to make an advanced decision to refuse specific treatment for when they cannot communicate this wish in the future. [4]

Making a Personal Support Plan

When you are focused on caring for your loved one, you may not notice you are neglecting your own well-being. It is understandable that you want to dedicate your efforts to help them, but you won’t be able to give them the best level of care if your own health suffers.

Forming a support group that consists of some other family members or close friends will be vital. Allow yourself to accept help for tasks such as grocery shopping or cleaning. Joining a support group of others who have faced similar challenges can help you feel less isolated. Making time for your hobbies, getting exercise, and practicing relaxation techniques like meditation or yoga can prevent burnout and ensure your efforts are sustainable. [2]

Changes in Communication

Learning how to communicate with someone who has dementia will enable you to help them better when difficult behaviors arise. Communicating with a dementia patient might not come naturally, but there are some things that can guide you.

two people talking during a sunset

To start, set a positive mood with your attitude and body language, speaking to your loved one pleasantly and respectfully. Facial expressions, tone of voice, and physical touch are your best tools to convey your affection. If it is challenging for your loved one to focus, get their attention by removing distractions and moving to quieter surroundings. Talk slowly and reassuringly with simple words and sentences.

Try to listen for what they are trying to say and not just what they say. Look for visual and other nonverbal cues, suggesting words if they struggle to find them. Recalling the good old days can be an affirming way to communicate. Often, people with dementia are better at long-term memory rather than short-term memory, so questions about their distant past usually make for comfortable conversations. [5]

Planning Activities 

An active social life can help your loved one maintain their abilities and skills. As their abilities decrease, continue to let them help with everyday tasks like walking the dog, laying the table, gardening, or shopping. Meeting up with friends can boost their mood. Dancing, swimming, yoga, and tai chi are good aerobic activities that look after their heart health, too. If they need supervision, seek out local dementia-friendly pools or gyms.

Memory cafés are places where you and your loved one can meet with other caregivers and people with dementia. Also called dementia cafés, these places provide an informal and comfortable setting to share advice and support. Another way to stay involved is to participate in painting classes, book clubs, or other art-based activities. [6]

a man looking at the price of oranges

Problematic Behaviors

Handling problematic behavior is among the most difficult challenges of caring for a loved one with dementia. It can be helpful to remember that behaviors always have a purpose and stem from either a wish or a discomfort. For example, if they empty the clothes out of their closet every day, they may be expressing a need to be productive. By considering the need that their behavior is attempting to fulfill, you will be better able to resolve unwanted behavior. [5] 

Getting Help

When you are caring for a loved one who has dementia, situations can constantly change. The things that work today may not work anymore tomorrow. Something that does not normally trigger problematic behavior can suddenly become an issue. It can be daunting to ask for help, and many caregivers find it difficult to do so. Starting to build a support team early on can ensure that there is help when you most need it. Finally, your doctor can be your best resource for learning about ways to overcome specific challenges and symptoms. [2]

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.