Recent data from the Alzheimer’s Association reveals that nearly 7 million Americans over age 65 currently live with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or dementia. Moreover, almost half of all caregivers in the United States look after someone with dementia. Because of the cognitive impairments those with dementia face, memory caregivers often need a unique skillset beyond the scope of what other caregivers will usually provide.
In most cases, Alzheimer’s or dementia patients crave the stability of a predictable, consistent routine. This helps them feel secure in an environment that might otherwise seem unfamiliar. It’s also important to work in activities that sharpen the brain while also accommodating certain recall, motor, and verbal limitations. As such, an effective memory care plan requires structured logistics, hands-on attentiveness, mental stimulation, and emotional soothing. So here are a few skills to cultivate if you’re the caregiver of someone with dementia.
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Caring for a dementia patient is not a nine-to-five job—you might need to pivot on a moment’s notice to make a doctor’s appointment, refill a medication, assist with a mobility or personal hygiene issue, respond to an emergency, or slot in some other unexpected task. Not only does this call for a flexible schedule, but it also requires the mental agility to think on your feet, adapt to various situations as quickly as possible, and act without being reactive. The more you’re able to roll comfortably with unforeseen circumstances, the less agitated or anxious your loved one will feel when a change occurs in their normal routine.
For many dementia patients, communication difficulties are among the earliest symptoms of neurological decline. In fact, research shows that your loved one can lose verbal control before their mental recall and other executive functions. You might notice it becomes harder for them to track a conversation, follow an instruction, answer a question or locate the right word to finish a sentence. Over time, they could lose speech altogether, so it’s vital that your communication skills remain sharp. Maintain direct eye contact, so your loved one can interpret facial cues, then deliver clear, simple information in a gentle and even tone.
On the topic of verbal decline, someone with dementia might not be able to communicate when a health problem or hygiene issue arises. Therefore, you’ll need to be observant and notice right away if there’s a mental, physical, or behavioral shift in your loved one, as it can indicate a more serious underlying concern. It’s important to know the signs of common ailments such as vision or hearing loss, pneumonia, infections, injuries, tooth cavities, gum disease, and mental health conditions such as chronic depression, anxiety, or insomnia. Keen observation on your part will ensure the patient receives timely intervention.
According to a recent survey from AARP, 4 in 10 caregivers rate their lives as highly stressful. If you are not careful, this role’s mental and emotional grind can eventually lead to burnout. Not only will this affect your personal well-being, but it could also scare, confuse or agitate the person you look after. Of course, you’re allowed to feel complicated emotions (you are a human, after all), but part of a memory caregiver’s job is to practice healthy emotional regulation. Even when you’re frustrated, composure is vital—remaining steady, patient, and calm without losing your temper will also stabilize your loved one’s emotions.
There will be times when you feel stretched in several directions all at once, so you’ll need to become an excellent multitasker to manage these inevitable situations when they arise. For instance, you might be in the middle of cooking a meal, washing the dishes, cleaning a spill, or setting out medications when your loved one simultaneously needs assistance or wants your attention. As the caregiver, you must be able to perform daily tasks while interacting with your patient simultaneously. This is a delicate balancing act, and it requires constant switching between the logistical and interpersonal sides of your brain.
These Skill Sets Are Vital for All Memory Caregivers
If you’re the caregiver of a person with dementia, then you know firsthand just how rigorous and rewarding this position can be. While it’s important to cultivate the right set of skills, please know that you don’t have to navigate it alone. Memory care facilities are available to partner with you through respite services, medical interventions, and practical resources. Caring for a loved one who suffers from dementia is not for the faint of heart, but it’s also such an impactful, meaningful experience when you have the ideal skills and support within reach.