By Karen Rose
According to the Alzheimer’s Association 2016 Facts & Figures, every 66 seconds someone in the U.S. develops this disease. The hidden heroes are the family members who support their loved ones with dementia in maintaining their independence and dignity, too often at the expense of their own health. Below, I offer my insights for supporting a spouse with dementia—although these tips apply to supporting anyone with dementia.
- Take care of yourself! Supporting a loved one with dementia is a hard job. Family caregivers are known to forego their own health needs as manifested by skipping medical check-ups and failing to maintain routine self-care activities. This likely plays a role in poor health outcomes for many family caregivers. Make and keep the appointments you need with your healthcare provider to maintain your own health.
- Stay connected with your social networks. Your loved one with dementia is a person who benefits from being around others to maintain their own dignity and self-worth. It may be that your loved one no longer enjoys being in big, noisy crowds—but, that doesn’t mean that smaller, more intimate social activities surrounded by loving family and friends need to be relinquished. You need to stay connected with your friends and your loved one does, too.
- Stay active! Regular physical exercise is good for you and for your loved one with dementia. Being outdoors, weather permitting, can have a calming effect for your loved one as the sights and sounds of nature are known to be soothing. And, there are health benefits from regular aerobic and strength-training exercises for persons with dementia, so it’s a good thing to do for everyone.
- Get adequate rest and sleep. You cannot support your loved one if you are operating from a glass that is “half full.” Maintaining adequate rest and sleep help support your ability to be at the top of your game. Avoid too much caffeine and strive to maintain a regular schedule for when you go to bed and when you rise in the morning. A routine for you and your loved one with dementia helps everyone feel well rested.
- Ask for help. Family and friends want to help support family caregivers and aren’t always sure how to do so. Make specific requests for assistance, like picking up a prescription or going grocery shopping, as you will find that people are eager to help. People want to help—it makes them feel good and it helps you to continue to provide support for your loved one.
- Reexamine holiday traditions. Are you able to pare back some of the activities of your holiday traditions while still maintaining what’s important to you and your family? You may notice that your loved one with dementia becomes anxious or seems agitated when many people are around, even if the people are family members. In this case, reexamining family traditions and reframing these in ways that will not overwhelm your loved one may allow you to continue to honor family traditions in a different way.
- Plan for the future. Now may be a good time to have meaningful conversations with your loved one with dementia and your family so that you can make plans for your future. Working with your attorney and financial advisor will provide you with comfort in knowing your wishes for the future are carried out in the ways in which you and your loved ones want them to be.
In short, taking care of yourself is the best way to support your loved one with dementia. There are many community resources that are available to support family caregivers and persons with dementia. A great place to start is by contacting your local Area Agency on Aging. Additional resources are available through the Alzheimer’s Association and through the Family Caregiver Alliance.
Karen Rose Contact
Karen Rose is the McMahan-McKinley Professor of Gerontology in the College of Nursing at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in gerontological nursing. Dr. Rose’s program of research is focused on supporting family caregivers for persons with dementia and in addressing and ameliorating neuropsychiatric behaviors in dementia. Karen enjoys traveling, hiking, doing almost anything outdoors, and spending time with her family and friends.