How to interact with relatives with dementia

Over the past few years, awareness surrounding dementia has steadily increased. There are currently 850,000 people living with the condition in the UK – and this number is set to soar to 2 million by 2051.

As the numbers have increased, so has research spending. Recent studies have shown the importance of care – not only for the individual on their journey, but for family members and friends too. From animal therapy to companionship, innovative technology to music.  Care for those living with dementia not only slows down cognitive decline, it stimulates engagement and brings people together.

Hearing that your loved one has been diagnosed with dementia can be a daunting experience. When I was 12 years old, my father was diagnosed with early onset dementia. I spent a lot of my teen years helping to care for him, which was really tough. But in the tough times what kept me positive was being able to interact with dad and know he was still the same, much adored, man.

Dementia can be extremely isolating, but it’s important to be aware that there is lots of genuinely helpful advice and support available, either in your local community, or online. Learning more about dementia, the journey that your loved one is now on, and what to expect can help you to understand the changes that are occurring, and how you can match your responses to these. Local community hubs such as libraries and Memory Cafés offer fantastic support, providing a safe, welcoming place for you and your loved one to spend quality time together. The Alzheimer’s Society also provides incredibly useful Dementia Friends information sessions, helping to break down barriers and change people’s perceptions of dementia.

Going through training sessions, or simply doing a little bit of research, will help you to make the first move when interacting with your loved one. In my experience, I did have to make the first move when interacting with dad, but it really helped that I knew what my father was experiencing so I was able to match my level of interaction to him. It can be intimidating, scary even, knowing how best to make the first move, but it’s so important to put on a brave face and be positive.

Getting creative and being spontaneous helps too. Hester Le Riche, in her PhD research that spanned six years, revealed the importance of games for those living with dementia. Hester showed that everyone can, and should, experience ‘moments of happiness’ no matter their age or situation. The research proved that games stimulate those living with dementia, meaning users are more engaged and levels of interactivity are improved.

Spontaneity is also important because every day will be different. As your loved one progresses on their dementia journey, you’ll witness changes within their personality as well as in their cognitive and physical abilities. I found it helpful to go with the flow. If dad was feeling tired or more confused on certain days, I would have a think about activities that worked well previously and then attempt to replicate these. Activities you can do together range from watching your loved one’s favourite film, to simply having a cup of tea and a chat and playing interactive games.

My dad used to love watching the rugby, so this was an activity we continued to do together. It brought us both joy – and that’s what really matters. Being able to spend a couple of hours with him where he was thoroughly enjoying himself meant a lot to me and provided a fantastic opportunity for us to get together and make memories which will remain with me forever.

Dad was brought up an Irish Catholic, so we always encouraged him to go to church too. It reminded him of his younger days, spurring reminiscence which helps to improve wellbeing in the individual living with dementia.

It can be incredibly challenging knowing that your loved one is living with dementia, witnessing the changes within their personality and finding ways to maintain your relationship. However, the most important thing for me was to focus on what dad could achieve, not what he couldn’t. When it comes to dementia, people often search to correct, but research is now proving that we should spend more time focusing on care and creating more ‘moments of happiness’ for all – no matter their circumstance.

John Ramsay is the CEO of Shift 8, the company bringing Tovertafel to the UK