Dealing with a senior living with dementia can be difficult but there are preparations you can make to benefit the entire family

Helping a Loved One with Dementia at a Family Gathering

Bethesda Health | December 23, 2019

Did you know that, with some preparation, family gatherings that include a senior living with dementia could be beneficial for the family and the senior?

Grace LeRoux, the Staff Development Coordinator at Bethesda Meadow and a former Nurse Manager of a neighborhood where seniors living with dementia live, can offer plenty of suggestions.

Prepare the Family

“Family members who have not been around the senior for a while will probably need some preparation before the gathering,” Grace says. “Mom or Dad may not seem the same they were even a few weeks ago. The important thing is to not be fearful. Your loved one is still your loved one, even amidst the illness.”

What to Anticipate

Dementia patients may be more disoriented in family gatherings due to all of the motions, sounds, people and noise. A change in routine and environment is more jolting for someone with dementia.

In a home other than that of the senior, Grace advises that seniors may need to be reminded about where the bathroom is located and asked whether or not they need something like a drink of water as they try to take in the new environment.

In addition, if the gathering is elsewhere, tripping hazards like floor mats and lamp cords need to be addressed before the senior arrives.

Grace discourages placing the senior in the pathway of boisterous children, or at a center point where multiple conversations and noise from adults are happening and could cause confusion. “Certainly don’t isolate the senior, but don’t place them in an area where there is an overwhelming amount of verbal and visual information,” Grace says.

Grace also suggests having a quiet area where the senior can retreat, rest and avoid sensory overload from time to time.

Before the Gathering

Grace stresses that, before the party gets started, you should try to involve the senior living with dementia as much as possible in the preparations. “If they have a recipe to share for the celebration, encourage them to do so. If they are able to stir the potatoes, help with setting the table or prepare the rolls, then let them,” she says. “And if Mom or Dad spill a drink or drop a utensil, take it in stride. The important thing is to let them feel they are making a contribution.”

During the Gathering

Grace also suggests that family members keep an eye on the senior. “If they look like they are withdrawing, confused or overwhelmed, that would be a good time to speak a word of reassurance and ask if they need anything,” she says.

In talking with the senior, avoid questions about the future. Instead, have them reminisce about the past because long-term memories are easier to recall. How they feel in the present is something they may also have the ability to converse about.

Also, don’t ask multiple-option questions. “Mom, do you want milk, water, tea, soda, or coffee?” may be difficult for them to take in. “Restrict your questions to a couple options,” Grace says.

She also notes that people with dementia are often mislabeled as non-verbal. “It takes them longer to process words, so their response to a question or comment may take longer,” Grace says. “Repeating the question may require their beginning to reason it out all over again.”

Also, talk a bit slower, but not insultingly slow, and look them in the eye while speaking to them. Above all, avoid “baby talk.” You are still communicating with an adult.

Grace advises keeping food options simple on the plate of someone with dementia. “In dementia’s later stages, people may forget what utensils are for and have less physical control of them,” she says. “A spoonful of peas can be a balancing act they have difficulty accomplishing. You may want to cut up their meat for them, but do this away from the table so as not to embarrass your loved one.”

Well-meaning relatives may try to correct the senior living with dementia when they misidentify a photo or remember a date incorrectly. This benefits no one and may lead to frustration and anger in the senior.

Finally, cut the visit short when it is apparent the senior has had enough.

For more assistance caring for your senior loved one this holiday season, contact Bethesda to learn about our programs designed to help seniors and their caregivers. We offer Respite Care for a short-term break, and our Memory Support Communities offer 24-hour safety and security for your loved ones in an environment that feels like home.

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