Alzheimer's blog

Tips on boosting spirits in Alzheimers caregiving

By Angela Lunde February 19, 2014

We're busily preparing for our annual Meeting of the Minds dementia conference taking place St. Paul on March 1st. You can still register at http://www.alz.org/mnnd/. I'd love to see you there, and if you are, stop by the Mayo Clinic booths and say hello.

I'm so pleased to share with you an article I asked my friend and colleague Karen Love to write. Karen is a gerontologist with expertise in dementia and is an incredible teacher and advocate for person-centered care.

Below, she talks about the need for meaningful engagement, and that it's about so much more than just staying busy.

Boosting Spirits, by Karen Love.

The changes that occur in the brains of people living with Alzheimer's are invisible to the eye. This means it can be difficult for caregivers to know what abilities and functions are being impacted.

There's one significant change that generally occurs early in those living with Alzheimer's. Knowing about, and understanding this change, offers the potential to significantly impact the quality of life for both the person with the disease and those who care about the person.

Those living with Alzheimer’s lose the ability to begin an activity or find interesting things to do on their own. If caregivers don't know about this, they could mistakenly conclude that the person is unmotivated or no longer interested or able to do things. As a result, the person can spend long days doing nothing, leading to boredom, agitation, anxiety and frustration.

Being engaged in interesting and meaningful things in daily life is essential for overall well-being. People living with Alzheimer's often just can't think of and find things to do because of changes in the brain. This means that caregivers, family and friends can play an important role.

To know what types of activities might be of interest to people living with Alzheimer's, think about their lifelong interests. For instance, people who have loved being around animals such as dogs, cats or birds will still enjoy being around them. At some point, they won't have the cognitive ability to care for the pet, but they will still enjoy the companionship.

Similarly, someone who loved to cook likely will still enjoy cooking but with modifications. One friend's mother-in-law used to love to cook. Now living with dementia, she can't manage meal preparations, but my friend includes her in the kitchen activities and gives her things to do that she can easily manage such as cutting up apple pieces and tearing lettuce for salad. Her mother-in-law enjoys the work and beams from the praise she gets from the rest of the family.

My father had Alzheimer's, and it was a little challenging initially finding activities for him because his lifelong interests were working as an executive and doing repairs around the house. Neither seemed replicable for someone living with Alzheimer’s. Our family began thinking along slightly different lines about what brought him joy and then it became easy to come up with ideas.

He loved to walk, eat with family, watch children play and dance with my mom. He had fun and we enjoyed doing these things with him because we knew they brought him joy.

You may have to think a bit creatively, but it's well worth it. Carving a little time to come up with ways to keep a person living with Alzheimer's engaged can help offset some of the negative effects of the disease. And you may discover that it helps you both stay emotionally connected.

(Because the benefits of engagement and interaction are so significant, Karen collaborated with a researcher from Penn State University, Elia Femia, PhD, to study the evidence base for engagement. They ended up creating FIT Kits to further the research and develop dementia engagement products for the general public. See www.fitkits.org for more information.)

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Feb. 19, 2014