Memory loss and dementia: at home
If you worry that memory is becoming a challenge for you or someone you care for, you should probably discuss those concerns with a GP. This is especially true if short-term memories are fleeting or it's hard to recall conversations that happened earlier in the same day.
Getting your message across
For people with memory loss or dementia, eye contact, a friendly smile and a calming tone can be the key to rewarding conversation. Quieter, more familiar locations with fewer distractions may be helpful too. Body language and gestures can spark memories and express ideas, so just be patient and reinforce words with meaningful, gentle actions. Sometimes a reassuring form of physical contact, if welcome, can add to the conversation.
Try to use words that are familiar. Slang may be hip, but in this case, it might not be all that helpful.
Set the pace and direct the conversation on realistic terms. Expect lots of questions, and don't worry if you're asked to repeat what was said. You aren't being ignored. And unless there is an emergency, take your time to communicate with someone who has memory loss or dementia. It's perfectly fine to slow the conversation down.
If you’re finding it difficult to relay your message, reminiscence might be helpful. There are many guides that can help you make it easier to communicate. Here is a brief list.
- Supporting a person living with dementia (a downloadable guide available on request from Jewish Care)
- How to help someone with dementia feel understood (information from Unforgettable.org)
- Communicating (a guide from The Alzheimer’s Society)
- Tips for better communication with a person with dementia (a downloadable PDF from Dementia UK)
- Communicating with people with dementia (from the NHS)
- Communication Tips from Individuals with Early Memory Loss by Judy Barry (from the Alzheimer’s Reading Room)
Using the telephone
Using the telephone can be a great way to stay in touch. Fortunately, there are special accessories that can help people with memory loss use standard telephones and mobile phones.
Regular phones. Mobile number, office number, home number...many people have a few phone numbers, so it becomes a bit trickier to keep track. To make things easier, there are some telephones that can be set up with photographs and programmed with favourite or frequently dialled numbers. With the push of just one button, direct contact can be made with a doctor, family member, friend, carer, chemist or emergency services.
Some of these phones feature regular dial options in addition to the photo buttons. Big button number phones are another helpful option.
When incoming calls are the most important priority, phones without dials or buttons may be a good idea. These dial-less phones are a great way to maintain safe contact since they preserve direct communication, but they remove the possibility of unwanted or random outgoing calls. Keep in mind that there needs to be at least one other outgoing call option on the premises—whether it be a mobile phone or another calling device.
Mobile phones. There are many mobile phones available, but when memory loss is a decision-making factor, then simplicity is key. As with picture phones, some mobile phones can be automatically programmed so all it takes is the push of one button to get the right call placed.
Customised ringtones can also be helpful, especially if an appropriate pre-recorded message can be associated with each incoming phone call. For instance, if you mum has memory loss and frequently leaves the landline off the hook, just create a custom ringtone with your voice telling her to hang up the landline properly and then call you back.
Many mobile phones also have global positioning systems (GPS), which are handy if the device is misplaced or the person using the phone becomes lost or disorientated. Speakerphones on smart devices can also be useful since this feature can help make the phone louder.
For many people, daily routine is fairly predictable part of the morning. You get up, shower, eat breakfast, get dressed and start the day.
And while routine is helpful for people living with memory loss and dementia, these kinds of humdrum activities may or may not be popular. Instead, picking out an outfit might seem confusing and challenging while taking a hot bath could seem frightening—even if there is absolutely no danger.
Sticking to a basic personal care routine may take a bit more time for someone with memory loss or dementia, but maintaining a positive outward appearance can help raise that person's self-esteem. It can also preserve general good health and wellbeing by minimising the chance of infections.
When it comes to personal hygiene, try not to force the issue in terms of bathing, brushing teeth, shaving and other daily activities. If mouthwash is too strong or becomes too difficult to use for someone with memory loss, try introducing chamomile or peppermint tea as another way to freshen breath. Instead of making these tasks stressful, make them enjoyable and relaxing, whether someone can handle these activities alone or if assistance is needed.
Privacy and dignity should be respected at all times; safety is incredibly important as well. Handrails can be installed near the toilet and tub or shower, and anti-slip mats should be safely used in the bath.
Make sure the bathroom is warm and the soap, shampoo and other toiletries are favourite brands with familiar smells. Keep choices to a minimum, just to avoid confusion.
The Alzheimer Society has some additional advice on washing and bathing; the organisation also has a factsheet with tips on how to manage toilet problems and incontinence. And the NHS has information on personal hygiene for cared-for people.
Sometimes it feels like you have a wardrobe full of nothing to wear, doesn’t it? Well put yourself in the place of someone with memory loss or dementia, and then think about what it must be like to get dressed every day.
To make this task easier, try introducing visual tools. Use pictures or words—or both—to identify where different items of clothing are kept. It might be wise to clear out drawers and wardrobes so they only contain favourite (or seasonally appropriate) items of clothing.
If a pair of socks (or shoes, or trousers, or underwear...anything!) is popular, then make sure there is more than just the one pair. If something is clean, comfortable, and well liked, then that will add to its appeal.
Can you stick with a few preferred colours? Snaps instead of buttons? Velcro instead of zippers? Being practical about clothing will make things less confusing for someone with memory loss or dementia. Soft fabrics that are easy to wash and require no ironing are ideal. Shoes must be comfortable and should have non-slip soles.
When picking out an outfit for the day, try to present no more than two options; this allows for freedom of choice, but it doesn’t create an overwhelming situation. So what if the outfit doesn’t match—it doesn't matter as long as it isn’t dangerous or inappropriate.
The NHS web page, Caring for someone with dementia from home, is a good resource for basic information on dressing and other personal care subjects. The Alzheimer’s Society website also has a page dedicated to the topic of dressing.
Cooking and nutrition
As with most things associated with memory loss and dementia, a routine is an important part of the discussion about food and nutrition. Some of the same ideas that work well in other parts of the daily routine can be helpful in the kitchen too.
Let’s get cooking!
If someone enjoys cooking as a creative outlet and a form of independence, then memory loss or dementia doesn’t have to end that pleasure. It might just mean making some modifications to the kitchen, so cooking projects are safe and easy.
According to research by Suzanne Fitzsimmons and Linda Buettner, cooking can be a helpful form of therapy for people with dementia. In the report entitled, A therapeutic cooking program for older adults with dementia: Effects on agitation and apathy, Fitzsimmons and Buettner explain, “Food—and the act of cooking— have powerful meaning to older adults. Food defines culture, family history, and traditions".
The article then continues with an explanation of research conducted by the pair in a residential care home that specialised in dementia: "Cooking provides the opportunity to take pride in oneself and perform past roles. Providing individuals with cooking opportunities increases socialisation as preparing and eating foods is the most social of all activities of daily living (ADLs) and is the glue of our social system".
So to keep the cooking experience safe and enjoyable, think about adding labels and signs to help organise the pantry. If the top shelf of a closet or cupboard is too high for safe and easy access, take the useful items out and put them in a place that’s within reach. The Alzheimer Society has some good information on its page that covers Safety in the home; for more kitchen pointers, make sure to scroll down to the section that explains adaptations to the home.
Food for thought
For many people, it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to lose interest in food—especially for someone who has always had a healthy appetite. But when it comes to memory loss or dementia, loss of appetite can happen to anyone. However, good nutrition is essential when it comes to wellbeing.
Some people with memory loss may develop a taste for a type of food that has never been a favourite; others come up with their own creative food combinations—whatever works is fine!
And food preferences may change from day to day or month to month. Flexibility is essential in order to keep the experience positive for everyone.
Finger foods can be helpful if using a knife and fork becomes a challenge; fresh fruits and vegetables can be cut up into snack-sized portions to encourage healthy and independent eating habits. However, if swallowing becomes difficult, there are other ways to get the best nutritional balance.
Smoothies are an excellent way to create tasty snacks and meals with great health benefits. And since staying hydrated is really important for people with memory loss or dementia, liquids in the form of smoothies can serve several purposes. Still, water is even more important when it comes to the basics of staying hydrated: six to eight cups of liquid a day is ideal.
Here are some good resources for more tips on dealing with dementia and diet:
- Eating and drinking, from the Alzheimer’s Society
- Dementia and nutrition, from CarersUK.org
- Looking after someone with dementia, from NHS (see the health and nutrition section)
- Dementia and food, a downloadable PDF from Norfolk NHS
And for food related advice associated with the Jewish holidays, visit the Jewish Care website and download the PDFs associated with each holiday.
Around the house
For people with memory loss or dementia, home decor is more than just a matter of personal taste, it’s also a matter of comfort and safety. From lighting to flooring, the right environment can make a big difference.
Good lighting. When poor eyesight combines with dementia or memory loss, the right kind of lighting can help brighten up the environment and reduce the chance of falls. Switches should be easy to use, especially around stairways and in toilets. And night lights are a good idea as well. Letting natural sunshine come in can do more than just make the space brighter—it can add warmth and bring positive energy into a room. But remember to beware of glare and confusing shadows when giving a room a light makeover.
Colour my world. When dealing with accents like doors, bannisters, handrails and toilet seats, stick with bold, solid colours. Warm tones on walls are ideal; avoid mirrors or wallpaper with abstract patterns or pastel tones. In general, bright colours can help create visual memory hooks for furniture too, so a favourite chair will stand out and be easy to find—especially if the colour of the chair is in bold contrast to the carpet.
Sounds about right. Carpets should be neutral in colour and patterns should not be confusing in any way. Hard, shiny floors should be avoided, and throw rugs should be thrown...away! And if someone with memory loss also experiences hearing loss, then soft furniture and carpeting can make a huge difference when it comes to cutting down background noise.
For more information on safety and dementia in the home, see our Memory loss and dementia: technology section. You can also check out the following links for more ideas on home decor:
- Safety in the home, from the Alzheimer’s Society
- Home environment and dementia, from NHS Choices
- Dementia friendly environments, from Care UK
- Caring for someone with dementia, a PDF download from Age UK
- Equipment to help with caring, from Carers UK
- Dementia friendly physical environment checklist, a downloadable PDF from Dementia Action Alliance and Innovations in Dementia
Making adjustments to your home to make living with dementia and memory loss can prove costly. In the UK, local councils may provide grants for home adaptations, and this varies from council to council. For guidance on how to find out about how your local council can help with home improvements, read about Equipment and changes to your home from Carers UK.