Your loved one has dementia. It’s hard, for them and for you.
Tia Powell, author of Dementia Reimagined: Building a Life of Joy and Dignity from Beginning to End, acknowledges that the advanced stages of dementia are frightening.
But she says that fear of those late-stage declines can prevent us from helping our loved one make the most of the days when they are still able to spend time with family and friends, enjoy activities, and be part of the wider world.
Powell is the director of the Montefiore Einstein Center for Bioethics in New York and her expertise includes dementia treatment and end of life care.
Powell’s own grandmother and mother died from dementia. In her research, she came across a phrase that resonated with her: Every remaining day should be a good day.
“I love the sound of that,” she says.
Here are seven ways you can help your loved one with dementia find joy in their remaining days:
1. Look forward, not back
So many people are grieving the loss of the person their loved one used to be. “We think, ‘This is so terrible, my mother is no longer a great mathematician,’” Powell says.
As difficult as it is, you need to try to accept that your loved one isn’t the person they once were and try to embrace who they are, she says.
When you’re focused on who your loved one used to be, you can inadvertently shame them. If you say things like, “That’s not like you,” or “You don’t need help with that” you can end up embarrassing your loved one, she says.
2. Think beyond safety
When your loved one is in the earlier stages of dementia, you may think they can safely stay home alone. But safety isn’t the only concern. Your loved one might be spending hours staring out the window or watching TV.
“Family members get into denial and don’t want to address the fact that it’s not really okay to leave them home alone all day,” Powell says.
You don’t necessarily have to look at residential placements. Your loved one could get out and do things with other people in a day program a couple of times a week, she says.
3. Get care for other medical conditions
To help people with dementia get the most out of every day, it’s important to make sure other medical conditions are well controlled.
A family member or companion might need to accompany your loved one to medical appointments.
That’s because a person with dementia might not accurately report problems. They may forget that they fell recently, or not notice that they are getting out of breath more easily than they used to.
And, a person with dementia might forget what the doctor says. If their doctor changes their medication, for example, they need to remember to both stop the old prescriptions and start the new ones.
“They need someone to be external memory for them,” Powell says.
4. Boost joy with good food
“Food is often one of the last remaining pleasures,” Powell says. Plus, food can be an important part of family celebrations and culture. She feels that as people with dementia age, it’s time to lighten up on the food rules.
“If I’m 94 and have dementia, I don’t really care about my cholesterol,” she says. “I want to order up an ice cream sundae if I feel like it.”
“When you’re younger and worried about protecting your cognition, I think it’s appropriate [to make healthy food choices],” she says. “Once [dementia] is moderate to severe I would not overly restrict. I think then you can make some tradeoffs.”
5. Help them keep moving
“Exercise is one of the few things that everybody agrees helps prevent speeding of cognitive delays,” Powell says. “And it’s another way to get that happy feeling.”
Walking, dance, and chair yoga can be good options even as mobility declines.
Spending time outdoors can also boost the mood of people with dementia, she says.
6. Seek joy in the arts
Powell says that people with dementia often like to participate in artistic activities.
Because the part of the brain that loves music is especially strong, people with dementia can often enjoy music as their disease progresses.
“Music can help you remember things,” she says. Even painful memories, like a wedding song that reminds a spouse of a partner who has passed away, are meaningful for people.
People with dementia also enjoy poetry. “It’s interesting because it’s a nonlinear, nonstandard use of words,” she says. Theater activities are also popular.
7. Return to childhood activities
Powell says a lot of activities you would do with younger children can be good choices for people with dementia. Finger painting, for example, can be fun and a form of self-expression.
And spending time with animals can bring joy into their life.
As dementia advances, some people enjoy playing with dolls. Powell acknowledges that it can be hard to see your loved one’s cognition decline. But it’s important to focus on what makes them happy today, not what they enjoyed in the past.
“I know it can be sad. My mother had dementia. My grandmother had dementia. I’m a doctor. I’m not denying it can be really hard,” she says.
But by focusing on the present, you can focus on the activities that bring happiness to your loved one today. “Everyone’s life should have some joy in it,” she says.