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Practical tips for living well with dementia

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Vanessa Bradbury, a registered general and mental-health nurse, is a dementia adviser for the Alzheimer’s Society in Cork and south Kerry. Here she shares some of her tips for people living with dementia, and their family and friends

  • Dementia is the name for a range of conditions that cause damage to the brain. This damage can affect memory, thinking, language and the ability to carry out everyday tasks. It is important to go to the GP as early as possible if you have concerns. There are many illnesses that have similar symptoms and can be treated.

     
  • Postdiagnostic support is essential. As with a diagnosis for any potentially life-limiting illness, it’s about planning for the future, having difficult conversations about wills, or considering setting up a power of attorney. The impact will be felt by family members, children and friends. There may be implications for your work and finances.

     
  • Organising a daily routine will help you remember things. Find memory aids that suit. Keep a diary. Write lists. Have a white board on the wall so you know when your appointments are, or when the grandchildren are coming to visit. Keep things you use regularly, such as keys, in the same place.

     
  • If you are forgetting to take medication, get a pill dispenser, or have your pills put in blister packs by the pharmacist, which will allow you to continue to take medication independently.

     
  • Challenge your brain. Do crosswords. Do sudoku. Learn a new language. Brain health is incredibly important and is connected to heart health. Be physically active. Stop smoking. Look at your alcohol intake. Look after your weight. Eat a healthy diet.

     
  • Social activities are vital for brain health. Keep up clubs and activities. Keep up with family and friends. If you find it difficult to have conversations in busy places, meet people in quieter locations.

     
  • The aim is to keep people’s lives as normal as possible; to enable them to continue to do things that they enjoy, and to live life as well as possible. Sometimes the temptation for families is to jump in too fast to help, deskilling the person, and leaving them feeling unable to take control or make decisions. Whether the person does a task such as emptying the dishwasher well or not, or you need to do it again afterwards, is irrelevant. If the person can get engaged in it, then it’s a worthwhile activity.

     
  • Sometimes speech and language may be affected. Difficulties with finding words or finishing sentences can be a problem. Families often ask if they should give the word or finish the sentence, and I suggest that they ask the person themselves what they would prefer. Would it be helpful to give the person the word they need, or would they prefer to be allowed time to find the word themselves? You won’t know what is best for them until you ask.

     
  • Share information in a way that will reduce a person’s stress. Holding on to information about what day or time it is, or appointments or events, may be difficult for them. When there is an appointment coming up, it may cause stress if they know too soon, so it can be a good strategy to delay giving them that information.

     
  • When processing information is difficult, the more you try to explain, and the more words you use, the more stressed a person may get. Keep explanations short and precise.

     
  • Distraction is often a good strategy to stop a person doing something that might be risky: “Why don’t we have a cup of tea first”, or “Let’s go out together”.

     
  • Due to sensory changes a person may find comfort in wearing the same clothes every day, or start to find showering an unpleasant or unsafe experience. Rather than challenging them, different strategies may help them maintain hygiene standards. These might include taking clothes to wash while they are asleep at night, or accepting that the person feels much more comfortable washing at the sink rather than showering every day.

     
  • Simple strategies can help maintain independence. Pictures on doors that indicate where the toilet is may be helpful. Changing the toilet seat in a white bathroom to a different colour can also help prevent accidents. The same approach may help at mealtimes as using crockery that contrasts with the table makes it easier to see food.

     
  • A person living with dementia may find that their tastes and appetite changes. There may be weight loss and weight gain. It is important to monitor and seek support to manage these changes.

     
  • A big dinner can seem overwhelming, so use smaller plates. Sometimes people prefer to graze, to eat little and often. Having healthy snacks in the fridge, or leaving out cut-up fruit, might encourage someone to eat. If a person lives on their own, sit and eat with them. Reducing distractions, such as switching off the television and radio at mealtimes, can help a person to concentrate on their meal.

     
  • Other simple adaptations can help, and keep the home safe. These include gadgets to stop sinks overflowing if taps are left on, and ways to disable the gas if someone is not safe cooking. We have a booklet on assistive technologies. Families can also talk to their community occupational therapist.

     
  • The Alzheimer Society of Ireland’s Dementia Adviser service is available to listen and meet with you and your family, to provide information and advice, and help you find support. You can contact its national helpline on 1800-341341 or helpline@alzheimer.ie

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