Have you ever had that nightmare where you’re back in school headed for a final, but you don’t remember going to class all semester? In fact, you don’t even know where the classroom is.
Yep, you’re definitely glad to wake up from that one.
But what if it’s not a dream. What if that’s the way you walk through life all the time, unaware of where you are and what you need to be doing?
That’s the way it is for someone with memory loss.
Coming into a room is like being dropped on stage in the middle of some unknown play, expected to perform.
No wonder people with dementia sometimes melt down.
So, if Dad has Alzheimer’s, how can you help him have the best day possible?
1. Keep Routines
We are creatures of habit. (It’s why you can get in the car on Saturday and accidentally end up heading toward work.)
Use it here to your advantage.
The more you do things the same way at the same time, the easier it will be for Dad to “remember his lines” or function.
- Keep his shoes in the same place.
- Try to have meals at the same time.
- Let him walk on his favorite path.
If while he was working, he was accustomed to keeping a Day-Timer, set up a written schedule for him to keep track of. Then, as reading gets harder, you can use pictures instead of words.
And on days when his schedule has to be different?
Gently explain the changes—and expect to do it more than once. Again, visuals are helpful here.
2. Speak Calmly
“A gentle answer turns away wrath.”
This wise advice from the Bible can go a long way toward keeping your day peaceful.
No matter what, keep your voice even-keeled.
If you raise your voice or talk frantically, your dad will likely mimic your agitation. But staying composed can help him feel relaxed. Which in turn can help him remember things easier.
If he does get upset about something—like he can’t find his book and thinks you took it?
Take a deep breath and respond kindly.
Redirection works great here:
- Tell him you’re sorry he can’t find his book and you’ll be happy to look for it, but maybe he’d like to look at this other one while he waits.
Need more ideas on effective replies? Check out this other post on how to answer things he might ask or say.
And think of your voice as a cool drink of water—not a shot of whiskey.
3. Explain One Step at a Time
Consider what it takes to brush your teeth.
You have to
- find your toothbrush,
- find the toothpaste,
- unscrew the toothpaste cap,
- squirt a small amount on the toothbrush,
- screw the toothpaste cap back on,
- rinse the toothbrush under the water,
- brush all the sides of your teeth,
- rinse, and
- spit again
Ten steps! To do a simple thing like cleaning your teeth.
If you break down all the necessary parts of the other normal things you do every day—get dressed, go to the bathroom, eat—no wonder Dad’s standing in the bathroom, completely lost.
Help him out by reminding him step-by-step what needs to happen.
Tempted to start doing most of the steps for him? Don’t. Let him try as much as he can for himself.
4. Don’t Rush
This one goes without saying if you are going to let him do things on his own. But it also goes further than that.
It requires planning:
If you have to go to a doctor’s appointment, don’t think about when you have to be there. Think about when you need to leave home to get there on time.
Then work backwards:
- How long will it take to get him into the car?
- How long will it take him to clean up from breakfast?
- How long will it take him to eat?
Allow a time-cushion so you can remind him to continue steps without pressuring him to hurry up.
If you’re used to hustling, this new slower pace might take some adjustment. But think of it as a chance to smell those roses you’ve been missing.
5. Watch His (and Your) Actions
Humans don’t just communicate with words. Let Dad’s physical responses speak to you.
- Is his face turning red?
- Is he fidgeting, pacing?
- Acting stubborn, irritable?
Any of his non-verbal responses can help you predict when he needs something to change. Then you can make adjustments before things get out of hand.
But it’s not just his body language you need to check. Keep an eye on your own.
- Are you looking harried?
- Are you rushing around?
- Do you look tired? Upset?
He can pick up on your facial and body clues and respond in kind. Keep as collected as possible and “never let him see you sweat.’
6. Chart His Reactions
If Dad does have a meltdown, jot down in a notebook what happened in the hour or so beforehand.
Did you have company? Did something change? Did he misunderstand something?
If you can figure out what triggered his response, you can know what to avoid tomorrow. Yes, it might take more than one outburst to figure it out, but as you look back at your notes, patterns might start to emerge.
And having it written down gives you a log to share with his doctor.
7. Encourage Him to Show If He Can’t Tell
Remember how your mom always told you it isn’t polite to point? Ignore that here.
If Dad can’t remember the name of something he wants, see if he can point to it. Maybe even get him a laser pointer or a flashlight so he can shine the beam directly on it.
Or ask him to describe it: What do you do with it? What color is it? If he can’t remember color or shape names, hold up different shades and objects and ask him if the thing he wants is like one of them.
If he’s starting to get upset because you can’t understand, keep calm, tell him you’ll come back to it later. and redirect him to something different.
8. Celebrate What He CAN Do (Not What He Can’t)
This is the “cup is half-full” thing.
Yes, you will grieve over the losses. But don’t dwell on them.
Find the things he can do and enjoy them together.
9. Only Gentle Prods
It’s no fun being pushed around, especially if you already feel out of control.
So if you need Dad to move, lay a hand on his shoulder and encourage him cheerfully.
Again, you might need to think through the steps he needs to take. So rather than telling him, “You need to get ready for bed,” touch his hand and say, “Let’s go find your pajamas.”
Then, a soothing hand under his elbow can be all it takes to guide him down the hall.
10. Remember He’s an Adult
While it’s last in the list, this one winds its way through all the others.
Yes, he may have forgotten how to do things. But he is not a child. Treat him like the mature man that he is.
Some things to watch out for: talking down to him, using a sing-songie voice, using the “royal we,” …
The general rule? If you wouldn’t want someone to talk that way to you, he probably doesn’t like it either.
So as you explain steps one at a time, speaking calmly, keeping routines, and doing all the other things on the list, be sure to look for ways to honor him—for the experiences he’s had throughout his life and the impact he’s made on those around him.
Reading a blog for information is great, but sometimes you need to talk through your questions to someone directly.
If you’re there, contact us at Frontida.
Guest post written by Elizabeth Daghfal
Elizabeth Daghfal is a writer, teacher, speaker, and community volunteer. Born and raised in the South, she now lives in Wisconsin and loves it—except for the fifteen months of winter. She has a passion to help people who are struggling and is happy to say her shoulders are drip-dry.
When she isn’t teaching or writing—who are we kidding? Her husband and five kids say she’s ALWAYS teaching and writing. But she also loves reading, singing, creating art, and just trying to stay ahead of the stories and research in her head. Read more about her at elizabethdaghfal.com.
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