Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE
Author: Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE, General Practitioner (GP)

Dr Sarah Jarvis is the Clinical Director of the Patient Platform, an active medical writer, broadcaster, and the resident doctor for BBC Radio 2.

6 min read

Caring for someone with dementia can be tough, but there are lots of ways you can help, calm and engage them.

Stay patient

It's really important to bear in mind that someone with dementia may ask the same questions, or tell the same story, time and again. This isn't their fault – recent memories are often the first to go in dementia.

Don't be too hard on yourself if you find it irritating – that's perfectly natural. But do take a deep breath and try to respond to a question as if it's the first time they've asked. If possible, take time out for yourself if you're finding yourself getting frustrated.

Be kind to yourself

Looking after someone with dementia can be mentally, emotionally and physically draining. It can be particularly hard if it's someone you're very close to, and in whom you would previously have confided your own fears or concerns. You'll be in a much better position to look after them if you're taking care of yourself – always remember the aircraft safety advice about fitting your own oxygen mask before helping others.

Carers for people with dementia are entitled to a carer's assessment through their local council. They may be able to help with arranging respite, getting support for you or putting you in touch with local support groups who can offer invaluable advice.

Crystal Clear Lake

Tap into their memories

A key point to remember is that especially in the early stages of dementia, older memories are often retained. Someone with dementia may not recall what they ate for breakfast that morning, but can still recite all the details of their wedding day.

  • Ask your loved one about their life. You might want to prompt them to start with memories from their youth or even their childhood.

  • Look through old photo albums together. This can be a great way of triggering their memories. Past holiday snaps are a safe bet – everyone loves a holiday and they can promote a wider-reaching conversation about a happy time.

  • Make them a memory box. These are a tried and tested way of prompting old memories and stirring up thoughts that will help stimulate their minds. There's good evidence that memory boxes can reduce stress, create positive emotional experiences and improve quality of life for people with dementia.

    A memory box might include a lavender sachet (similar to one their had in their drawers in their youth); a well-loved necklace; a photo of their wedding; newspaper clippings of happy events; letters from a loved one; family heirlooms or even an old sewing pattern for their favourite dress. The possibilities are endless. Do remember that you want them to open the memory box regularly, and possibly when they aren't supervised – so do avoid any sharp or potentially dangerous objects.
  • Reminisce about their favourite holidays. Getting away on holiday has always been a treat. Many older people will remember the days when you needed a visa to travel anywhere outside the UK and long before the advent of package holidays. Despite all the restrictions COVID-19 has brought to our lives, there will still come a time when we will once again live in a 'global village', with a plethora of choice of far-flung holiday venues. But for your loved one, their sharpest holiday memories may be of a long weekend in a Bed & Breakfast at the English seaside, with a dragon of a landlady who kicked them out at 9am and didn't let them back until supper time.

Smell and taste

Favourite smells from childhood are often retained deep in our brains. Cooking and baking together can fill the kitchen with delicious, well remembered scents and stimulate their appetite, which can be affected by dementia.

Of course, it's important to remember that cooking and baking may involve knives and hot pans or ovens – so do adapt what you let them do depending on what is safe for them. It's important to let them do as much as they safely can.  In the early stages of dementia, they may be able to carry out the majority of the tasks. Later, talking them through the process while they watch, and letting them lick the bowl, can bring back happy childhood memories.

Take assistance from Mother Nature

Along the theme of smell, a local park or public garden will have fragrant plants and flowers through most of the year. If it's cold, make sure they wrap up warmly and do remember that they may not be able to walk too far or very fast.

If they were keen in gardening before their diagnosis, you may well find that gardening comes naturally. Think about how you could allow them to make the most of their green fingers within any physical limitations – perhaps a table in the garden where they could pot out seedlings.

If you have a local park with a pond, you could feed the birds together – again, this is an activity which many people with dementia will have experienced in their youth, and it can trigger that same childish delight.

Mountain Views

Get them out and about

A walk in the park has the added bonus of giving the person with dementia some exercise, which is really important to keep them in good physical shape. But you could also think about manageable days out to their favourite coffee shop, a museum they used to love or a local beauty spot.

Music and the spoken word

Both reading your loved one a favourite book and listening to music together can help stimulate their minds, helping slow progression of dementia and reduce the risk of depression. They may well have favourite recording artists – make the most of today's technology to create a playlist of the artists or types of music they enjoyed most.

Never underestimate the power of nostalgia to sooth and stimulate.

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