How to help people with dementia

Dementia Action Week has been delayed from May to later in the year due to the coronavirus pandemic. These are challenging times for everyone, but particularly for those living with dementia or their families.

You may work with individuals who have dementia, or your colleagues or customers may have a family member living with dementia. We’ve put together some advice to help support you.

What is dementia?

According to alzheimers.org.uk: “Dementia describes different brain disorders that trigger a loss of brain function. These conditions are all usually progressive and eventually severe.” Symptoms include memory loss and confusion.

Around 850,000 people in the UK are living with dementia, with half of us knowing someone who has been diagnosed. Dementia is on the rise, mainly because most of us are living longer. Medical advances mean people are less likely to die of causes such as heart disease or some cancers. Because of this, the chances of getting dementia is increasing. Whilst there is no cure for depression, there are ways to alleviate some of the symptoms. Many people with dementia lead happy, satisfying lives with the support of their friends, family, colleagues and community.

Talking to someone with dementia

It’s harder now than ever to communicate with someone living with dementia. The lockdown restrictions mean you may not be able to visit them face-to-face, which removes body language and comforting gestures such as smiling. You won’t be able to read facial expressions or hold someone’s hand. Distraction techniques such as listening to music together or looking through old photographs is tricky without face-to-face contact, and video calls may seem impossible. This all makes communication so much more difficult.

When speaking to someone with dementia over the phone, consider these communication strategies:

  • Ask simple questions. This could be a yes or no answer, or providing the individual with a choice (“is your favourite biscuit a custard cream or a bourbon?” rather than “what is your favourite biscuit?”).
  • Speak mindfully. This means think carefully about what you say and the way you say it. Rephrase a question if you have to, repeat yourself or speak slower.
  • Be patient. Don’t hurry someone with a response. Allow them to take their time.
  • Silence may be golden. Even if you’re communicating by telephone, your friend/family/colleague may need a little time to refresh. Don’t interrupt silence – it may be comforting.
  • Don’t patronise someone, correct them unnecessarily or make a joke of what they say. Enjoy the conversation and allow them to participate. Never speak to someone with dementia as if they’re a child – treat them with respect and listen to the things they have to say.
  • Make the most of good days, and adapt to the bad ones. Ask your most important questions at a time where the individual will be most responsive, and use ‘bad days’ as an opportunity to reach out and tell your friend or family that you care and love them. Provide moments of warmth and comfort.

Dementia and coronavirus – what to do if you’re living with someone with dementia

We are all required to stay at home, aside from a specific set of limited circumstances. These rules can be confusing for individuals with dementia, who may not understand what they can and can’t do. Click here for advice and information on explaining the coronavirus pandemic to someone with dementia.

Try to explain the rules consistently and visually. For example, put signs around the house reminding your family member to wash their hands thoroughly as there is a flu outbreak and they need to stay safe.

Friends, family, neighbours, volunteers and support groups will be more than happy to help get essential shopping. People with dementia may not understand why they must stay 2m away from others, and may become confused or distressed while out as the shopping environment will be significantly different. Try to avoid taking them shopping with you if you can.

It’s best to accompany the person with dementia on walks. Choose quieter times of the day and areas/routes that aren’t going to be too busy. This will help minimise confusion.

Finding things to do can be difficult without the assistance of support groups. Ask the person with dementia what they’d like to do, and try to find fun activities to keep your household occupied. This includes listening to music, watching old films, playing puzzles or reading aloud. If you have a garden there are plenty of outdoor activities you can do – why not try making a bird feeder, or taking part in some gentle exercise routines?

If you don’t live with the person, you can still make a positive difference

Send small gifts such as flowers or games, or even a handwritten note. You can also arrange frequent phone calls – little and often, so the person with dementia doesn’t become overwhelmed or confused.

The person living with dementia may be in a care home, in which case you must follow the advice and guidance given by the individual organisation. If the person is living alone, you may be able to visit them regularly (keeping 2m apart) in order to drop off shopping and check on their wellbeing.

How to support colleagues who are affected by dementia

70% of carers have felt isolated in the workplace. Together, we can change that.

As with most things, education and understanding is key. Share advice and information about dementia with all colleagues, so they understand the disease and its impact. The more people know about an issue, the more they can offer help and support. Employers should also have the knowledge to signpost workers caring for someone living with dementia to further sources of information and support.

Dementia awareness training, Employee Assistance Programmes and promotion of additional support and toolkits should all be considered. The We Are Wellbeing team are happy to assist in putting a thorough wellbeing programme in place for your team.

Understand that colleagues either living with or supporting someone with dementia may require additional support themselves. They may require flexible working hours, time off, emergency leave or other amendments to their work life in order to effectively balance their home life. As well as looking after employees and colleagues from a practical viewpoint, you must also consider your employees’ wellbeing.

Offering official support such as counselling or wellbeing seminars can be particularly useful. However, providing a listening ear and an understanding smile can be just what your colleagues need to feel comfortable talking about any issues or struggles. If you notice a colleague is behaving differently or seems quieter than usual, or they have shared they’re supporting someone with dementia, try to offer help and kindness where you can. Offering to make a cup of tea, simply asking how they are coping or even enjoying a laugh over a shared interest or television programme can help to brighten someone’s day.

Visit the Dementia Action website for more information and recommendations on providing workplace support.

For further advice and support, contact the dementia specialist Admiral Nurses on 0800 888 6678 or email helpline@dementiauk.org.

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