If you have a loved one with dementia, you know. Memory loss doesn’t just affect the brain. It progressively affects the whole body, especially the eyes. It can be disconcerting.
But just like there are positive ways to talk to your loved one when he forgets he’s asked the same question ten times, there are encouraging ways to help when his brain isn’t connecting with his body.For example? In a past post, we talked about what to do when your loved one forgot he just ate. But what if the problem isn’t wanting to eat too much? It’s eating too little…
Attack #1: “Eating Like a Bird”
Yes, you’ve probably heard the cliché is really a misnomer—our high-flying friends actually eat a lot. So a more accurate comparison would be eating like a frog. Or a penguin. Both of which can apparently exist on very little sustenance.
But can your dad?
Maybe he spends more time picking at the table cloth than he does at his food. Or he eats carrots but doesn’t touch his chicken.
Do you get offended because he doesn’t like your food? Do you keep repeating, “You need to eat”? Give up and spoon feed him?
Dementia’s Trap: Too Much to See and Do
There may be a time when he cannot feed himself, but don’t fall for that too quickly. Let him do things for himself as long as he can.
Unfortunately, eating is not a one-step process. He has to coordinate his eyes, hands, mouth, and silverware with the food, something he’s been doing since he was a baby.
But memory loss doesn’t just affect his brain. It affects everything the brain talks to. So your dad might be looking at his plate, but his eyes and his brain aren’t talking the same way. Colors and shapes don’t mean the same thing to him anymore.
- If you have white plates, the carrots stand out nicely, but the chicken might blend in. He doesn’t even realize it’s there.
- And if your tablecloth has a pattern? Or dots? He may be distracted, thinking they need to be picked up like spilled buttons.
Just telling him to eat won’t solve the problem. You need to help him figure out what to eat and how to do it.
Your Rescue: A Martha Stewart MAKEOVER
Plain, solid plates and tablecloths help food stand out, so he can see what he’s eating. If you grab an inexpensive set where each plate is a different color, you can cross color your plate with the the day’s menu so none of his food gets lost in the background.
He’s still avoiding certain colored foods? Try other foods with the same nutrients but different color spectrums.
And if he’s struggling with his spoon and fork, get rid of them. (Didn’t someone say food tastes better with your fingers, anyway?)
Attack #2: “Time and Time Again”
Sometimes the problem isn’t NOT doing something. It’s doing it OVER and OVER again. And not just with questions. It could be motions.
- Dad knocks on the table constantly. Or strokes everything near him—Sometimes other people.
- Mom constantly fiddles with her hands and fingers. Or pulls imaginary strings from above.
Dementia’s Trap: Stuck in a Rut
As the Alzheimer’s or Dementia stops their ability to make new memories, they rely on old ones. And old muscle memory kicks in. Actions they did for years rise to the surface.
But as their brains understand less and less of what they see around them, they don’t realize those movements don’t make sense where they are.
Your Rescue: Play CHARADES
Think back to what Mom and Dad used to do. Do their motions fit old jobs or hobbies?
- If Dad was a carpenter, he could think knocking is building something. Let him hammer nails in a board.
- Did He always have dogs? Maybe he’s trying to pet one. Check into getting a service dog. Or a soft stuffed animal.
- Was Mom a knitter? Her fiddling could be ghost needles. Let her try real ones, making something small. If that’s too much, let her wind skeins of yarn.
And for Mom’s grabbing at air? Look up. Literally.
Just like her eyes can’t comprehend patterns on a tablecloth, she could also be losing her recognition of depth.
- Is she reaching to turn off a light—but has no idea it’s really six-feet up? Ask her if she’d like you to turn off the light.
With repetitive motions, it could come down to a little bit of research and some imagination so you can make sense of your parents’ actions.
Attack #3: “I Wanna Go Home”
Whether Dad’s lived in the same house for fifty years or just recently moved to assisted living, you can run into this issue.
He keeps asking to go home even if he’s already there. He might add, “I want my mom.” Sometimes he tries to leave.
Dementia’s Trap: A House vs Home
Home is more than just four walls and a bed. It’s comfort, security, confidence.
But right now, as his memory slips, Dad is feeling anything but that.
He may be thinking of the home he created with your mom—the place where he actually lives now—but his brain doesn’t understand what his eyes are seeing. The room he sees isn’t familiar. In his fear of the illness, he feels lost.
And he may be thinking of his childhood home. The place where he could always run and hide in Mama’s hug. You find him wandering from room to room, restless, and maybe even stepping out the door.
Reminding him that this scary place IS his home isn’t going to help.
Your Rescue: Enjoy a WALK
- If he’s trying to take off, tell him you’d love to walk with him. Guide him around the room or down the hall. Look at pictures along the way.
- Ask him to describe home. Something funny his mom did. If he ever played a trick on her. Tell him stories you remember about your childhood.
In other words, reminisce. Laugh. Help him feel secure, confident.
When he seems ready, ask if he’d like to enjoy coffee and cookies with you. (If you can keep some favorites on hand “like Mom used to make,” all the better!)
Attack #4: “Smoke and Mirrors”
Mom may know who she is, but remembering her age? That’s another story altogether.
Sometimes she may know. But sometimes she might think she’s in her 40s. Sometimes her 20s. Sometimes a teen.
So waking up in the morning and seeing herself in the mirror could be quite a shock.
Dementia’s Trap: She Doesn’t Remember Growing Older
As the brain changes, Mom will have days when she’s more lucid and days when she’s not.
If she has a sudden change in delirium, be sure to check with her doctor in case she’s developed a UTI or some negative interaction with one of her medicines. (This post on detecting bladder infections might help.)
If it’s just the normal progression of the disease?
On days when she thinks she’s younger, there’s no harm in playing along.
Your Rescue: ANTICIPATE the UNEXPECTED
If she’s upset with her reflection, cover her mirror in the morning before she gets up.
- You could use a towel, a piece of artwork. OR
- In place of the mirror, put up a picture of her from when she was younger.
You can also display other pictures of her at various ages around the room so she can see them when she’s ready. And, of course, set out pictures of other family members.
If she thinks her children are little, let her hold a baby doll. Or invite a family over with a little one to play.
Remember, the more relaxed she is, the more likely her brain can make connections—with her body following along.
Halting Attacks on You, Too: Go FootLoose…Regularly
Yes, there are physical attacks of Alzheimer’s and Dementia.
Yet, thankfully, countering the disease can help you see it separate from the Mom and Dad you know, helping everybody be more comfortable.
But Don’t Forget: No matter how well you do with all your parents’ needs–
YOU need regular breaks.
Dementia’s Trap: Their Illness Affects YOU, Too
Not only does dementia and memory loss attack your parents’ bodies—it also attacks yours. Through exhaustion.
And you can’t take care of them if you aren’t strong yourself.
Your Rescue: BEAT the BURNOUT
Taking breaks, both short and long, will help tremendously. Need ideas?
Elizabeth Daghfal is a writer, teacher, speaker, and community volunteer. When she isn't teaching or writing-- Who are we kidding? Her husband and five kids say she's ALWAYS teaching and writing. She has a passion to help people who are struggling and is happy to say her shoulders are drip-dry. Born and raised in the South, she now lives in Wisconsin and loves it--except for the fifteen months of winter. Read more about her at elizabethdaghfal.com.