Caring for a loved one with dementia
It's a cruel diagnosis. Your loved one - a husband, wife, parent or dear neighbour, perhaps - has been getting more forgetful. Then come the 'near-miss' accidents - leaving the gas on, locking themselves out in their dressing gown. Finally, you see the doctor and hear the dreaded word - dementia. But there is much hope, too. Caring can be rewarding, but it's hard work if you feel all alone. There is help out there.
Look after yourself
You're a hero! Carers save the government an astonishing £120 billion every year in the cost of paid care and social services. Every carer is entitled to an annual carer's assessment from social services. A trained social worker can look at the help you need to stay in good shape for your invaluable job, including respite care for your loved one. They can also help you access the financial help you may be entitled to, including:
- Earnings replacement benefits, which are paid if you can't be in employment because of your job as a carer. This includes carer's allowance
- If you're also unwell yourself, you may be eligible to claim disability living allowance or personal independence payments if you're under 65, or attendance allowance if you're over 65 and need care
- Council Tax reductions or Council Tax benefits if you're on a low income
- Travel or taxi cards.
Contact your local council about getting an assessment - you have every right to it!
Bring back happy memories
Your loved one is likely to remember their youth much more clearly than they do last week. Use 'props' - old photos, pieces of jewellery or and items they can hold - to start a happy flow of conversation.
Many people with dementia are frightened by change. This may seem odd, when people with severe dementia don't seem to know where they are or even recognise you. Even so, there's good evidence that routine is calming. That doesn't mean you have to be tied down every hour of every day - you will definitely benefit from a break now and again. But try to stick to a regular routine of meals, activities and bedtime.
In time, your loved one may need more help with everyday activities like dressing and washing. These are private and personal activities, so be alert to things that make them uncomfortable. Try to keep them involved - perhaps laying out some outfits and letting them choose what they wear. If they can, let them dress themselves with help - use short instructions ('put your left arm in that sleeve') and give them plenty of time.
Feed their minds
Your loved one may lose their appetite as their dementia progresses. But keeping in good physical shape can help slow their overall decline, and diet plays a key part. A broad range of healthy foods - fruit and vegetables, fish, nuts and white meat with less animal fat (red meat and high-fat dairy produce) - has the best evidence. Tempt them with small, more frequent meals and snacks, and try traditional dishes from their youth.
Best foot forward
There is good evidence that regular exercise can help cut the risk of vascular dementia (the second most common form of dementia) and possibly Alzheimer's. The evidence for it slowing decline in people who already have dementia is less strong. But regular physical activity helps keep them mobile and cuts the risk of falls, which are common in dementia.
Use music from their youth to tempt them to get up and dance or do stretching exercises. Take a walk in a familiar park or just to the corner shop.
The Alzheimer's Society - flying the flag for sufferers and their carers
The Alzheimer's Society does invaluable work in supporting people with dementia and their carers. They have recently launched two new initiatives:
- Champions in Dementia is a training programme to help professionals working in health and social care obtain the skills and understanding they need to provide really effective care
- Dementia Friends aims to encourage awareness of dementia and practical action that makes life more dementia-friendly, with free information sessions across the country.
Visit www.alzheimers.org.uk or phone 0300 222 11 22 for information about these or your nearest Alzheimer's Society support group.
With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.