Dec 9, 2016

How to Become a Dementia Care Detective

A dementia care detective is someone who uses their listening skills and perception abilities to figure out what a person with dementia may need. When a person with dementia is exhibiting a challenging behavior, a dementia detective tries out different options to solve the problem.


By Rachael Wonderlin
Alzheimer's Reading Room

The best way to help the person you’re caring for is to become a “Dementia Care Detective.”

Absolutely anyone can be a great dementia detective--you do not need any special training.


Try to put yourself in the shoes of a person living with dementia, what would you need to feel better?

As corny as it sounds, the best way to help the person you’re caring for is to become a “Dementia Detective.”

Someone with dementia might have trouble explaining why they’re upset, or what you can do to fix the problem.

Communication and Alzheimer's


I recently encountered an opportunity to solve a problem using my detective skills.

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One of my residents was confused about where she was within the memory community. “Okay, so I’m here ... near my room ... but how do I get ... where I’m trying to go?” she’d ask, clearly unsure of what she was looking for.

“How do I get upstairs?” she asked.

There aren’t any stairs in the memory care community, but that was not the point. I needed to find a way to calm her anxiety about where she was trying to get to, even if she couldn’t verbalize what she was looking for.


I noticed that she was constantly walking around our square-shaped community trying to reach what she believed to be the side that she hadn’t found yet. In order to solve this problem, I drew her a map of the community.

My hand-drawn map allowed her to see what was on the other side of the building without having to walk there. Her anxiety faded when I handed her the map. “Wow. This is so helpful,” she said, surprised.


Another example of problem solving began when a woman believed that her bed was infested with spiders. She had been through two mattresses within a year because her family didn’t know what to do. She complained that she was being bitten by spiders at night despite the lack of marks on her skin in the morning.

As I always say, embrace her reality.


Knowing that there was no way to explain to this woman that she wasn’t being bitten by spiders, I came up with another solution. I suggested that the family put water and lavender into a spray bottle, give it to her before bedtime, and tell her that it’s bug spray.

The mixture isn’t harmful to people or materials, and lavender is a calming scent that we use at work on residents’ hand towels before meals. Since the problem the woman was having was a psychological problem, we needed a psychological solution.

Use what you know about the person you’re caring for.

Try to put yourself in his or her shoes: what would you need to feel better?


Don’t discount what this person has to say because he or she has dementia. Because even if their reality doesn’t make sense to you, their emotions should be easy to understand.

Be a detective, and don’t be afraid to fail. Even if you try something that doesn’t work, try it again a while later.

Be patient, be innovative, and be creative - and then feel proud that you’ve solved the problem.



Rachael Wonderlin is an Alzheimer's Reading Room expert. She has a Master's in Gerontology from UNC Greensboro; and, has worked in numerous memory care environments in different parts of the US. Rachael's book -  "When Someone You Know is Living in a Dementia Care Community" - was published by Johns Hopkins University Press. She currently works as a dementia community designer and consultant.

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Original content the Alzheimer's Reading Room

*** Dementia care is the art of looking after and providing for the needs of a person living with Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia.