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Caring for someone with Alzheimer's is one of the toughest jobs in the world. "It is stressful, physically and emotionally draining, and very expensive, as almost 15 million unpaid caregivers for people with Alzheimer's and other dementias can attest," says Dr. Scott McGinnis, medical editor of the Harvard Special Health Report A Guide to Coping with Alzheimer's Disease.
How to take care of a person with dementia
Learning how to take care of a person with dementia can be a trial-and-error process. Every person with dementia and every caregiver is unique, and so is their relationship. However, the following general tips may be useful in helping people with dementia remain physically healthy and connected to the world.
- Help people with dementia by speaking simply and patiently. To get the person's attention, begin by using his or her name. Use simple phrasing and short sentences, but be careful to avoid talking to the person as if he or she were a child. Give someone with Alzheimer's time to complete a sentence or thought, and try not to interrupt.
- Make mealtimes less stressful. Reduce sensory confusion at meals. See that the dining area is well lit. Make sure the person is comfortably seated and doesn't need to use the bathroom. Keep items that may be mistaken for food, like dog biscuits or flower bulbs, out of sight.
- Serve nourishing, manageable meals. Use a plate color that contrasts with the food. Remove condiments from the table. Limit choices by putting only one food on the plate at a time and offering only one utensil. (Curved spoons, divided plates, and straws can make it easier for people to feed themselves.) Don't serve food or drink that is too hot. Cut food into small pieces. Remind the person to eat slowly and chew each bite thoroughly. If he or she chokes easily, switch to soft foods. Serve foods containing fiber to help prevent constipation.
- Reduce resistance to bathing. Avoid discussing whether a bath is needed. Prepare everything in advance. Lay out towels, soap, shampoo, and clothes. Have the water ready and at the right temperature before bringing him or her into the bathroom. Be calm, gentle, and reassuring. If the person seems disturbed at this invasion of privacy, cover portions of his or her body with a towel. Encourage him or her to do as much as possible without hands-on help. Talk through each step. If the person refuses to get into the tub or shower, be flexible and suggest an alternative. If all else fails, try again later.
- Accident-proof the bathroom. Use rubber tub mats, tub seats, grab bars, nonslip bath mats, etc. Do not use bath oil or products that make the tub slippery. Put razors and electrical appliances out of reach. Take the lock off the bathroom door.
- Incorporate skin care into bath time. Check the skin for rashes and sores. Use powder or cornstarch to prevent chafing, and apply body lotion to dry skin.
- Simplify dental care. Prepare the toothbrush and demonstrate how to brush. If the person will not brush and refuses assistance, give him or her a cloth moistened with mouthwash and tell the person to rub it over his or her teeth.
– By Beverly Merz
Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch
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