7 Things You Can Do Right Now For Someone Living With Dementia

It’s no secret that the care-taking process isn’t an easy one. Though it has its moments of reward – a breakthrough on a good day, a connection after days of disconnect – it is also frustrating, for both the care partner and the patient. Small acts, however, can go a long way in easing frustration.

Here are seven things you can do right now for someone who lives with dementia, from a Registered Art Therapist who specializes in working with clients living with dementia.

1. Validate

We want to affirm the reality of the person living with dementia. Their brain is not working like a typical brain. There is a disease that is attacking it – meaning they might see things or tell stories that aren’t quite accurate, but that is what they perceive to be true.

Instead of denying and trying to change their mind (which you won’t), just agree. Whatever a client tells me in session, I believe to be true in session. If they say they had twelve children, but only really had two, I agree. What good does it do to deny a person their beliefs? All that would do is potentially make them angry, and not feel good about themselves. No one wants to live in that reality!

2. Live in the Moment

When a client is creating art, and they are extremely focused and enjoying themselves, I will be there with them. I might verbalize that it appears they’re really happy or that they have great focus. The client will then affirm or deny my comment. For the most part I am correct in stating something to the extent of, “You have such great focus! It looks like you know exactly what you want to do,” as a client is placing a piece of collage meticulously down on paper.

That comment can mean a lot. It means that I see that my client has purpose, knows what they’re doing, and feels confident in their decision. This can be a stark contrast to the day-to-day functions they can or cannot complete for themselves, due to cognitive impairment.

3. Take breaks

I suggest that care partners take breaks and take care of themselves. It is so important that a care partner has their own outlet. That can be their own therapist or support groups; it can also be that for the time I’m with their loved one for art therapy.

It is really important that, as a care partner, you take care of yourself to recharge. The hardest job a person will ever have is to take care of a loved one living with dementia.

4. No quizzing

It is so disheartening to see a person living with cognitive impairment be quizzed. It’s often family members asking “Who am I? You know who I am!”

Instead, just introduce yourself. “Hi Dad, it’s me Erica, your daughter.” This is very helpful in orienting the person, versus setting them up for failure.

5. Live in the Moment

See the person for the beauty they are today and not who they used to be. Find a way to create a relationship with the person of today.

People will change throughout the disease process. Honor who they are today!

6. Try this collaging exercise

Collage is always a great start for someone living with dementia.

Cut up images or pieces of paper and have the person fill in an area. It’s important to remember that some older adults may also have vision issues. Make sure that there is a structure, outlined in a dark color that the person can choose to work inside or out of. Let them decide where to work on the paper. Most people want to work inside the lines, but the person may want to work outside the lines. That is okay! Be okay with the person working outside typical norms.

Remember, their brain is being attacked by a disease. They might see the world differently. Accept their art for what it is. If you are with them along the way, they will appreciate that more than being corrected!

7. Avoid complex activities

Avoid adult coloring books with intricate details! This can be extremely overwhelming and difficult for an older adult living with memory loss.

When vision is an issue, and the person is slowly losing their fine motor skills, you’re setting them up for failure. It can be hard to distinguish between the lines. It might be hard for that person to hold the art supply. You could be doing more harm to the person’s ego than good. Please be aware of what you are supplying them to create with!

Final message to care partners or family members of seniors experiencing memory loss

I know there is a list out there about top 10 things you shouldn’t do, but we should talk about what care partners should do. Number one is to take care of yourself.

Carve out time when you can recharge; that might mean taking a friend, relative, or someone from your community up on their offer to help. At the end of the day, you can’t help someone if you yourself are not okay.