Most everyone is familiar with Aesop’s fable about the Tortoise and the Hare— however as we grow into adults, many of us lose sight of its moral. “Slow and steady wins the race. . .” is a mantra that parents and teachers instill in us from a very young age. But as time progresses, we sometimes hear a voice in our heads that may question the reality of that statement and even our own fortitude as people.
This is especially the case when someone receives a dementia diagnosis. How can you or your loved one remain positive when hearing that they will lose their memory in a relatively fixed timeframe? The truth is that we [doctors and families] may not be able to offer much consolation to the person just diagnosed, however we can provide support and encouragement by reiterating to them that a positive attitude and focusing on what they can do, not what they can’t, can go a long way.
We’ve all heard about the mental and emotional benefits that accompany an attitude of positivity and there’s a lot of data proving this. Among others, the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) meeting held in the UK in 2019 reported evidence “that greater mental well-being is associated with reduced dementia risks, and that it is possible to maintain mental well-being even if you experience declines in your cognitive abilities or physical health.” However, a lot of recent research conducted during the dementia surge over the past few decades also postulates that having a positive outlook can improve quality of life with dementia and stave off the worsening of symptoms or slow down the rate of stage progression.
However, hearing this versus believing it are two different things. It will generally take a lot of emotional and moral support from friends, family members, and caregivers for one to take steps to normalise the diagnosis or internalise an outlook of positivity. One way to start broaching this is to provide “I can…” or “I will…” statements and encourage the person living with dementia fill them out or recite them aloud.
Here are some examples to use as a guide:
1. I will do my best.
In the early stages, there will be changes or limitations in what functions or daily tasks that the person living with dementia will be able to continue to do or accomplish. While that can be disappointing or difficult to accept initially, it is important to stay positive and repeat the mantra “I will do my best” consistently. Though the person is bound to get down sometimes, it is important to remind them that they are doing their best, and that is good enough, and it’s not for the lack of effort that they may be experiencing challenges.
2. I can maintain structure with a routine.
Keeping engaged is one of the best ways to stay independent. In fact, data shows that staying busy improves brain health and can even trigger memories. Basically, being active keeps people living with dementia interactive. One of the ways to keep a person living with dementia feeling independent and giving them a sense of purpose is to create structure through a well-established routine. This is one of the key functions of an assisted living facility or care home, but it can be accomplished at home using to-do lists or checklists. And once they are established, following them becomes automatic.
3. I will lean on others for support.
In the early to mid-stages of the disease, it is important for people living with dementia to stay in contact with friends, extended family members, and doctors or therapists. If the person is still living at home or in an assisted living facility without around-the-clock care, it is especially important to reach out to them to see how they are managing and remind them that you are there to help or support them when they are feeling down, lonely, or vulnerable.
4. I will make an effort to get outside.
While a familiar environment is mandatory for a person living with dementia to thrive, it’s also important to get out or have a change of scenery frequently — whether exploring nature or visiting a well-loved location. It is documented that familiarity can be key in sparking joy or triggering memories, especially when combined with tastes, scents, sounds and other stimulating senses, so going to a locale that the person frequented prior to being diagnosed can be particularly enjoyable or effective in spurring connection.
5. I can reach out to others with similar challenges.
In the early to mid-stages, support groups and memory cafes (often run at libraries or local senior centers) can be an integral resource and are a great place for helpful advice, encouragement, and tips to ease the mind and enhance mood. For example, attending a group meeting or individual therapy session can be instrumental and there are a plethora of therapeutic methods that have been proven to support them — whether it’s just talking, engaging creativity by exploring a new outlet through music or art therapy, or simply just spending time with others who are experiencing similar challenges in a group setting. Either way, it is very important that the person is accompanied by a family member, friend, or caregiver who has built inherent trust and an established relationship with them.
We at Relish also pride ourselves on offering lots of advice, tips, and products that can help you continue to flourish. From articles to podcasts to our downloadable Wellness app for caregivers, Relish offers a myriad of resources for the dementia community at https://relish-life.com. You can also visit us at Useful Links page for links to websites or apps with content tailored to helping you to take care of yourself while living with dementia.