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Elderly person and their caregiver in a park

June 5, 2024

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3 Tips for Caregivers of Loved Ones With Dementia

Judy Cornish developed the DAWN method to help our loved ones retain a sense of dignity, despite living with dementia. Here, she shares three caregiver tips for dementia that will help prevent hurt feelings and restore a sense of self.

Featuring Judy Cornish

Being a caregiver for someone with dementia can be incredibly challenging. Namely, it's unpredictable. Since dementia is a progressive condition that affects cognitive abilities, memory, and behavior, caregivers are constantly adapting to the changing needs and behaviors of the loved one or client. It can require round-the-clock attention, lead to exhaustion, and even burnout. 

Though ongoing loss of memory and rational thought is incurable (at present) for people with dementia, Judy Cornish says that there are still things we can do to help make the experience for our loved ones and clients less lonely and more comfortable. She created the DAWN Method, and the Dementia & Alzheimer’s Wellbeing Network, to teach caregivers and families just that.

Not a One-Size-Fits-All Method

Judy's strength-based care method shows caregivers how to help people who are experiencing dementia regain a sense of security, not just provide for their well-being needs. Her person-centered approach teaches caregivers how to recognize and meet the emotional needs that cause loved ones to react with stress behaviors.

"Dementia affects not only our memory skills, but also our ability to use thinking, language, and attention skills," Judy says. "Those changes affect our relationships, our ability to do tasks, and our ability to understand what’s happening around us. Medical knowledge doesn’t give caregivers what they need to work with the emotional needs that result when someone’s ability to function changes in all these areas."

When you are caring for someone with dementia, it’s important to remember that the person may or may not be able to understand that their own abilities are changing and that even though their cognitive skills are becoming more limited, they are not becoming lesser beings.

Judy offers three caregiving tips to help preserve your loved ones' dignity and sense of equality by partnering with them. "If you take these three caregiver tips for dementia to heart," Judy says, "I believe you will begin to experience less hurt feelings and happier interactions."

Dementia Caregiving Tip #1: Be a little forgetful yourself

Though we cannot bring back the skills that dementia is taking away, we can embrace forgetfulness and confusion as something that is a normal part of daily life, rather than something that is upsetting.

For example, Judy suggests that you might want to highlight your own forgetfulness. When it’s time to go out, say what you might be thinking internally out loud: “Hmm, now where did I leave my keys? Not in my purse—maybe in the kitchen? I’d better go and look.” When an appointment is overlooked or a deadline missed, rather than being upset and dismayed by the error, react to it with complacency, as a normal part of life.

After all, if we’re living or working with someone who has dementia, we do need to accept such mistakes as inevitable and normal.

Dementia Caregiving Tip #2: Blame a third-party

When our loved ones or clients lack rational thought, we can’t expect them to understand our explanations for why they should or shouldn’t do something.

Often our clients lose their understanding of hygiene or sanitation. It becomes very difficult to get them to wash their hands or take showers, because understanding that germs can cause sickness or poor hygiene can cause skin issues requires the ability to see cause and effect, as well as sequence or process—rational thought skills they are losing or have already lost.

Instead of attempting to change someone’s behavior with explanations, change the situation into something you experience together and can commiserate about.

Here, we’re always looking for a distant third party to blame for causing us to do something. We wash our hands with our clients because we don’t want to catch the flu from “strangers” who also use the bathroom. We both get out of the hot tub because “the insurance company” enforces a 15-minute rule. We both take our vitamins or eat our vegetables because we don’t want the doctor to be concerned.

Dementia Caregiving Tip #3: Be a teammate, not a superior or instructor

When someone lacks rational thought, remember that you don’t have to propose entirely logical reasons for doing something. What’s more important, Judy says, is that you and your companion with dementia are both required to do whatever it is, so that you can act as teammates in complying.

When we offer help as an equal and teammate, rather than a superior or instructor, our loved one’s dignity and sense of autonomy remain intact. There is no loss of control or hurt feelings.

Destigmatizing forgetfulness and mistakes is a very valuable way to help our loved ones retain a sense of self, despite dementia. We can become teammates rather than superiors.