3 Approaches for Calming Someone with Dementia

Alzheimer’s and other dementias are difficult to give general advice on because a lot depends on the type of dementia and the stage of the disease. But one thing I have found that helps me across the board is, you need to put yourself their shoes. Doing so can be difficult, but if someone living with dementia is feeling anxious or worked up, I recommend trying the three approaches below.

It is easy to find yourself arguing with a person living with dementia, but telling your mom with late-stage Alzheimer’s that her partner passed away usually does much more harm than good. If she won’t be able to retain the information for long, the knowledge feels like a fresh new pain that can be quite traumatizing. Instead, I would recommend trying to go along with her current reality.

This approach will not always work. Sometimes it can get a bit messy. If your mom thinks you’re her sister and begins talking to you about childhood memories- she may get frustrated if you don’t respond how she feels you should. In these situations, try and let your senior do the majority of the talking and get a bit creative with questions. If your mom is talking about a trip, you took one summer to a cabin you’ve never heard of, comment on things you know are likely true like how hot you were, then turn the conversation back onto her with a question.

Another time agreeing isn’t an option is if the topic is causing your older adult stress. If your dad thinks there’s a war going on outside, this is not something to encourage. Overall, use your best judgment but if affirming them isn’t working consider our next tip.

Distraction is a prevalent method taught to caregivers. Mention how beautiful the weather is, start talking about something funny your son did the other day, ask if they would like a glass of iced tea. Whatever it is, try and get their minds off the current topic of conversation.

You may have to keep trying different tactics. I’ve had clients with new caregivers who were very concerned with where their primary caregiver was. They’re at the window fidgeting and worrying, and it’s all they can think about. Sometimes, reminding them “Susan is just at the bank and will be back very soon.” then offering them a warm cup of tea to pass the time till she gets back will do just the trick.

Other times, especially in cases where Susan is no longer with us, a cup of tea won’t be of any use and can come off like you don’t care. Don’t confuse someone living with Alzheimers or dementia with being stupid. If you’ve offered them a distraction and they’re just not having it, don’t keep trying to force it on them. This will only end up with both of you feeling frustrated.

Meet Where They Are
If distractions aren’t doing the trick, try the next step up, meeting them where they are. If your older adult is concerned with Susan’s whereabouts, try pulling out an old photo with the two of them together. This is very similar to distracting but shows the person you’re connecting with them, and you are listening. If they’re insisting “they want to go home” but they are in fact home, try putting on a TV show they loved during that same time and ask them what they like most about their house. This won’t work for everyone every time, but I have found it to ease tensions. The worst thing you can do is to tell them they are home. Don’t assume you know what home they are talking about. They could be thinking of their childhood home.

If someone with more advanced dementia keeps repeating “they need Susan,” they may mean “they need help.” But to them, if Susan was the person that usually helped them they may only be able to express it as such. If you think this could be a possibility, take a step back and go over their physical needs. Could they be too cold or too hot? When was the last time they drank or ate anything? Is there something on or near them that is making them uncomfortable? Maybe, they need to use the bathroom.

While all these approaches have helped me in the past, I must stress the importance of having patience. It’s not realistic to think if your dad is feeling stressed and worried just showing him a photo will immediately calm him down. Sometimes, it may do just that, but the majority of the time it will take a few tries and reevaluating. But all in all, I wish you the best of luck and know you can do it.