9 Things to Know If You Have a Parent With Dementia

There are 5.7 million people in the U.S. currently living with a form of dementia such as Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia, or Lewy body dementia. If your parent has received a diagnosis, the news can be devastating to family members—even if they don’t serve as the affected person’s caregiver.

Caring for or visiting a parent with dementia isn’t easy, but there are ways to deal with it. Here are nine tips to keep in mind if a loved one has the disease.

1. Prepare to Live in the Present Moment

A dementia patient’s memory will fluctuate from day-to-day, so it’s important to remember that from here on out, you’ll be living in the present moment with this person. Whatever the interaction is like when you visit them, try to appreciate it for what it is. You can’t change the past and you can’t predict what the future will bring, so you need to live with their diagnosis one day at a time.

Dementia means good days and bad days. Be prepared for days when your loved one seems quite lucid and others where they suddenly forget how to tie their shoes or cannot recall your name. Try to remind yourself that the entire experience can actually serve as a good reminder for you to live in the present moment as well.

2. Speak Simply

Communicating with a dementia patient means speaking slowly and simply. Make sure you first have their attention and that they’re aware of your presence. If they’re listening to the television or radio, you’ll want to turn the device off first so they can focus on you.

Keep your questions and sentences easy to understand. When you ask a question, they may feel overwhelmed by too many choices for their answer, so give them one or two options instead of listing them all. Try not to shout; they’ll be more receptive if you lower the pitch of your voice.

In a way, speaking to a dementia patient can be a lot like speaking to a child. Be patient and phrase your sentences in a way that they’ll understand.

3. If They’re Receptive, Show Affection

Everyone longs for physical affection. A touch or a hug can mean a lot to a dementia patient, even if they don’t reciprocate or show a response. It demonstrates that you still have an emotional connection to them.

Not everyone with dementia enjoys being touched, so use your best judgment and respect your loved one’s preferences. But if they’re willing, don’t hesitate to take their hand or give them a kiss while greeting them or helping them with a task.

4. Don’t Underestimate the Power of Music

Studies show that playing music for dementia patients can improve their mood, encourage physical movement, and even spark deep-buried memories. While music cannot reverse or cure dementia, it definitely has many benefits. Playing a particular song from a specific era may have meaning for a dementia patient and they may even start talking about an event from years ago that the song reminds them of.

So play your parent’s favorite music for them and if they’re willing, place headphones over their ears and see what happens. Many dementia patients can recall lyrics and will start singing along, even if they’ve forgotten the names of family members and friends. Music is an extremely powerful and affordable tool to have at your disposal when visiting someone with dementia.

5. Break Tasks Into Steps

A person with dementia may feel overwhelmed by something as simple as brushing their teeth, so be prepared to break it into steps for them. Walk them through wetting the brush first, then placing toothpaste on it. You may also need to demonstrate to them how to brush their teeth by showing them how you brush your own teeth.

By breaking a chore or personal grooming task into several steps, you may help them retain their memory of it longer and make it easier for them to complete it. Don’t forget to be encouraging and deliver praise when they accomplish it.

6. Let Them Retain Any Independence

At the same time, if there are chores and hygienic habits your loved one can still perform without assistance, let them do it themselves with your supervision. Let them retain as much independence for as long as they can, even if it’s for a couple of things such as dressing themselves or using a vacuum cleaner. Allowing them this freedom will give them a sense of purpose.

7. Keep Living Spaces the Same

Routine and familiarity can help dementia patients. Avoid moving their furniture and personal belongings around. Photographs and treasured possessions may help them retain certain memories and can keep them calm by providing security.

8. Don’t Try to Change Your Loved One’s Behavior

Dealing with dementia can be extremely frustrating, but try to remember that you cannot change that person or cure the disease. If you can, try to accommodate the behavior instead of changing it.

Very often, a specific behavior has some kind of meaning to the dementia patient. You may not understand why they feel the need to take all of their jewelry out of the jewelry box, but it could be it makes them feel organized or productive in some way. As long as they’re not harming themselves or others by doing it, try to be patient and let it be.

9. Reach Out For Help

It’s pretty impossible to care for a person with dementia, especially if you’re trying to juggle a job and your own home responsibilities. Don’t be afraid to ask others—particularly family members—for help.

If they’re unwilling or unable to pitch in, look into hiring help such as memory care. You can read more here about what memory care provides.

Join a caregiver support group. Very often others in the group can point you in the right direction to resources that can provide assistance.

Don’t forget to take care of yourself and make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and taking measures to prevent or reduce stress. If you’re not caring for yourself first, you won’t be able to care for your parent.

Know How to Deal With a Parent With Dementia

It can be extremely challenging caring for a parent with dementia, but try to keep these tips in mind and take things one day at a time. When you look back one day, you’ll be grateful for the time spent with them.

For more tips on how to care for yourself and your loved ones, visit our Wellness section.