Aug 9, 2011

Two Key Caregiver Skills

Not only have you acknowledged her years of contribution to the family, you’ve affirmed that you love and treasure her and want to give her a gift.

By Cindy Keith

When you are caring for a loved one with some form of dementia, I know it will dramatically improve your life and the life of your loved one if you can improve on two crucial caregiving skills. Those would be the skill of using humor every day, in many different ways, and always using a “nurturing” approach when interacting with that loved one.

People with dementia often maintain their sense of humor for a long time and can “get” a joke if told one. They like to laugh and every time you can help them laugh, you both feel “normal” again.

Mind you—it’s laughing WITH them and not AT them. They will quickly be able to tell the difference, and if you’re laughing at them, they will probably become agitated.

Being able to laugh at the things that go wrong will also go a long way towards improving your own health as a caregiver.

For instance, if Mom decides to put her sandwich into her glass of milk at the table resulting in a mess, you have two options. You can get upset, which she will quickly detect and become upset also because she doesn’t know what she did wrong, or you can choose to see this as a small bump in the road and laugh it off.

Possibly saying something like “Mom, it’s COOKIES you’re supposed to dunk, not tuna sandwiches!” would elicit a laugh from her as well. Either way, you have to clean up the mess, and it makes it so much nicer for both of you if you can be cheerful about it.

I know, I know—there are so many times when you just want to sit down and cry and couldn’t even begin to see humor in some situations. Start slowly by resolving to laugh about one or two things, and then gradually build up over time. There will always be tears just around the corner, and you should not ignore them, but maybe put them on hold for a time when you’re alone or “venting” with a friend. Your brain will react in whatever way you tell it to, so if you tell it that today you’re being happy and calm, then it will work hard to accomplish it. If you dwell on all the many negatives, then your brain will comply by bringing up as many negatives as it can. Please try to choose humor as much as possible.

The “nurturing” approach is one that some people seem to already know about and use. Other people need to learn new ways of interacting in order to become more nurturing.

An example might be if your husband has dementia and you find him happily pulling out all the lovely flowers from your flowerbed. In his mind, he’s “weeding” out all the weeds, and he’s possibly thinking you will appreciate his hard work. A nurturing approach would be to swallow that dismay, smile and thank him profusely for his “help.” Then offer him a cold drink or a rest in the shade in order to get him to stop. You can’t replace the flowers, but you can still nurture his need to be needed and busy. Some day, you will look at that flower bed and wish he were still able to be out there pulling out flowers, and you may even be able to laugh when you tell other people about it.

Another example might be if your wife has dementia and you’re busy getting supper on the table. She comes into the kitchen and starts to “help” you. If you remember that this used to be her domain and she needs to feel needed and normal, you might stop what you’re doing, give her a big hug and thank her for her help. Then possibly tell her something like “Martha, I wanted to surprise you with supper tonight and I want you to be the guest of honor. You’ve served me thousands of wonderful meals, and tonight it’s my turn, so you just sit down here and let me be the cook tonight.”

Not only have you acknowledged her years of contribution to the family, you’ve affirmed that you love and treasure her and want to give her a gift. If you had not taken those few minutes to nurture her, and instead had said something like “Martha, I’m trying to finish getting supper ready, I’m almost done and I don’t need your help right now, you just sit down here,” then I’m sure Martha would become upset with you and you would then have to contend with making her happy again.

When you can interact with that loved one consistently with humor and in a nurturing manner, then your life, and their life, will be happier and calmer. This journey through dementia can be a long and hard one, but you can make the choices to make it smooth.

I wish you much luck on your journey.

Cindy Keith, RN, BS, CDP has extensive experience working with Alzheimer's and dementia patients. As a nationally known speaker, Cindy regularly travels throughout the United States giving day-long seminars on the importance of facility staff training in dementia care. Cindy is the author of Love, Laughter, & Mayhem - Caregiver Survival Manual For Living With A Person With Dementia. She an be reached through M.I.N.D. in Memory Care.

Subscribe to the Alzheimer's Reading Room

More Insight and Advice for Caregivers

Original content Cindy Keith, the Alzheimer's Reading Room