Supporting A Friend Or Family Member With Dementia: What You Can Do

  • Regina LopesSenior Nursing Assistant, Health and Social Care, The Open University

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Introduction

Definition of dementia

Dementia describes a condition which causes a range of symptoms associated with a decline of brain functioning.1 This results in a disruption to the individual's ability to perform everyday tasks and activities.1 

Memory loss can be one symptom of dementia, however there are several other symptoms that may be present in individuals living with the condition.1 

Importance of supporting loved ones with dementia

The individual living with dementia may become very stressed, scared or anxious as their condition progresses. It is therefore important to understand how best to support your loved ones living with dementia. By maintaining the affected individual’s social life, skills and abilities, the right support can reduce negative feelings about themselves and their condition.2 

Overview of what will be covered in the outline

This article will introduce what dementia is, and how you can support a friend or family member living with dementia. 

Understanding dementia

Explanation of what dementia is and its common symptoms

Dementia is a syndrome, or a group of symptoms, that is associated with a decline of brain functioning in the affected individual.1 

The common symptoms of dementia include:3 

  • Memory loss
  • Reduced thinking speed
  • Reduced mental clarity 
  • Trouble with language, for example choosing the wrong words or speaking incorrectly
  • Trouble with understanding other people and text 
  • Impaired sense of judgement
  • Diminished mood
  • Trouble with movement
  • Disruption to daily activities 
  • Loss of interest in tasks they usually enjoy 
  • Trouble maintaining relationships 
  • Experiencing hallucinations
  • Change in personality
  • Trouble being independent 

Other symptoms aside from those listed above may also present in individuals living with dementia.3

Different types of dementia (Alzheimer's, vascular dementia, etc.)

There are many different types of dementia which differ in their associated symptoms and timing of onset.4 Some examples of types of dementia include Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia, but others do exist.4 

As an example, Alzheimer’s disease develops very slowly over time, whilst vascular dementia may develop gradually or suddenly.4 In the early stages of the condition, individuals with Alzheimer’s disease may have trouble with their short-term memory, but this is less common in those with vascular dementia.4 

Alzheimer’s Research UK provides a detailed breakdown of the different types of dementia and the symptoms they cause. 

How dementia affects individuals and their families

Since dementia causes a wide range of symptoms and can significantly impact daily activities, it has a big effect on both individuals and their families. Individuals living with dementia may require more support, which puts pressure on family and friends. Understanding how best to support individuals living with dementia can help reduce this pressure. 

Importantly, with the right support and treatment many individuals are able to lead fulfilling lives with their dementia diagnosis. The NHS website provides an overview on how an individual with dementia may live well with the condition for several years. 

Practical ways to support

In the next section we will outline practical ways to support your family member or friend living with dementia. The NHS website also provides a detailed breakdown of how you may look after and support an individual living with dementia

Communication strategies

As the condition progresses, individuals living with dementia may begin to struggle with communication - for example, expressing their thoughts and feelings and providing rational thoughts and reason.5 They may also struggle to understand you.5 Below we will describe ways in which you can communicate with an individual living with dementia, and how you can encourage them to communicate with you. 

Patience and empathy

To encourage an individual with dementia to communicate it is important you remain patient and calm to minimise any pressure and help them communicate more easily.5 Communication may become very stressful for those living with dementia, so try to empathise and listen to them carefully.5 

Simplifying language and instructions

When you are communicating with an individual with dementia, try to simplify your language and instructions. For example, speak slowly and clearly in short sentences, and then give them time to respond. When giving choices; keep these simple and not too complicated. You may find you need to rephrase your question or instruction to make it easier to understand. 

Active listening

It is important to use active listening when communicating with individuals living with dementia. This will mean you listen more carefully and become aware of non-verbal communication, for example body language and facial expressions. To use active listening: 

  • Make sure you use eye contact when looking at the person, and encourage them to look at you, when you are engaging with them
  • Try not to interrupt them when they are communicating
  • Give the person your full attention when they are communicating
  • Reduce any background noise or distractions
  • Repeat back to the individual what you heard once they finished communicating to make sure it is correct, or if not, ask them to repeat what they communicated 

Providing emotional support

As a family member or friend it is important you provide emotional support to an individual living with dementia as it can be very stressful or scary.6 Below we provide a few examples on how you may do this. 

Acknowledging feelings

By acknowledging the feelings of an individual living with dementia you show that you care and are listening to their concerns.6 Acknowledge what they say and encourage them to speak more on what concerns them. This may help alleviate feelings of pressure. 

Being present and patient

Try to be present and patient with individuals living with dementia.6 It can be frustrating or stressful for individuals with dementia so knowing you are there with them can be very helpful. 

Encouraging reminiscence

Try to encourage individuals with dementia to remember experiences and events from the past (reminiscence).7,8 This may help improve the mood and communication of individuals living with dementia.7,8 

Assisting with daily activities

Everyday tasks and activities may become difficult for individuals living with dementia. Below we provide a few examples on how you may assist an individual with dementia with their daily activities. 

Establishing routines

Having an established routine can be useful for individuals with dementia. As a friend or family member you may be able to help put a routine into practice. For example, taking an individual out for social activities or assisting regularly on a certain day. It may include you offering reminders and prompts to help the individual stick to their routine. However, make sure this routine is simple and not too complicated. 

Ensuring safety in the home environment

It is important that individuals living with dementia have a safe home environment. This may include: 

  • Ensuring good lighting to reduce the risk of falls. Lighting should be bright, clear and without shadows or glare
  • Reducing any background or excessive noise
  • Ensuring flooring is safe and minimising any trip hazards
  • Minimising contrasting colours to avoid any confusion or disorientation 
  • Removing any reflections, for example mirrors, as they can be confusing or distressing for individuals with dementia
  • Putting up signs or labels to make certain doors and cupboards clear
  • Including dementia-friendly household products

The NHS website provides further information on how to ensure safety in the home for individuals with dementia

Seeking professional help and community resources

There is lots of support available for family members and friends looking after an individual with dementia. Further information can be found on the NHS website, the Alzheimer’s Society website, the Alzheimer’s Research UK website, and Dementia UK website

If you are concerned about the treatment or symptoms of an individual living with dementia, speak to your healthcare professional. 

Taking care of yourself

As a family member or friend looking after an individual with dementia it is very important to take care of yourself. Below we will provide some advice on how to do this but further information can be found on the links above. 

Recognising caregiver stress

Caring for someone with dementia can be very stressful and demanding.9 It is important to practise self-care to look after yourself.9 

Examples of self-care practices

Setting boundaries

Making sure you take regular breaks from caring from your family member or friend with dementia ensures you have time to look after yourself. Therefore, setting boundaries may be useful to make sure you have time to yourself. 

Seeking support from friends and family

Other friends and family can support you in many ways and it is important you ask for help to reduce some of the pressure on yourself. The links above will direct you to organisations who provide valuable support. 

Finding time for relaxation and hobbies

Don’t forget your own hobbies and make sure you take breaks to participate in these. It is important you relax and have time for yourself to reduce pressure and any stress. 

Summary 

Dementia is a syndrome, or a group of symptoms, that is associated with a decline of brain functioning in the affected individual. These symptoms may include memory loss, reduced communication skills, and an impact on daily activities, among many others. As a family or friend of an individual living with dementia you can support in many ways. This may be through communication, assisting with daily activities, or providing emotional support. It is also important that you take good care of yourself to minimise stress and pressure. 

References

  1. Emmady PD, School C, Tadi P. Major Neurocognitive Disorder (Dementia). In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 [cited 2024 Apr 15]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557444/
  2. Smith R, Drennan V, Mackenzie A, Greenwood N. The impact of befriending and peer support on family carers of people living with dementia: A mixed methods study. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2024 Apr 15]; 76:188–95. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167494318300414
  3. Cloak N, Al Khalili Y. Behavioural and Psychological Symptoms in Dementia. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 [cited 2024 Apr 15]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK551552/
  4. Duong S, Patel T, Chang F. Dementia. Can Pharm J (Ott) [Internet]. 2017 [cited 2024 Apr 15]; 150(2):118–29. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5384525/
  5. Banovic S, Zunic LJ, Sinanovic O. Communication Difficulties as a Result of Dementia. Mater Sociomed [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2024 Apr 15]; 30(3):221–4. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6195406/
  6. Clarkson P, Hughes J, Roe B, Giebel CM, Jolley D, Poland F, et al. Systematic review: Effective home support in dementia care, components and impacts – Stage 2, effectiveness of home support interventions. Journal of Advanced Nursing [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2024 Apr 15]; 74(3):507–27. Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jan.13460
  7. Woods B, O’Philbin L, Farrell EM, Spector AE, Orrell M. Reminiscence therapy for dementia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2024 Apr 15]; 2018(3):CD001120. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6494367/
  8. Saragih ID, Tonapa SI, Yao C, Saragih IS, Lee B. Effects of reminiscence therapy in people with dementia: A systematic review and meta‐analysis. Psychiatric Ment Health Nurs [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2024 Apr 15]; 29(6):883–903. Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jpm.12830
  9. Brodaty H, Donkin M. Family caregivers of people with dementia. Dialogues Clin Neurosci [Internet]. 2009 [cited 2024 Apr 15]; 11(2):217–28. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181916/.

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Taylor Fulton Ward

BMedSc Clinical Sciences, First Class Honours, 2021

Taylor is a final year Cancer Research UK PhD Student at the University of Birmingham, UK. She has several years of experience within academic writing and has published on a range of topics, including medical education, cancer genomics and immunology. Her academic interests lie within immunology, oncology and haematology and her PhD has interrogated the hypoxia-mediated dysfunction of CD8+ T cells in Multiple Myeloma. She is now embarking on her career in medical writing.

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