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What are the emotional needs of someone with dementia?

As dementia affects the brain, your loved one with the condition can go through changes in their behaviour and emotional needs. Meeting these emotional needs might not be as simple for those closest to them. A person with dementia can be coping with feeling like a stranger in their own body and changed behaviours and feelings which they find difficult to express. This can be very frustrating for them and therefore it's essential to take a patient approach with them and respond in a personal way that reinforces that they're individuals that deserve to be cared for and understood.

Dementia is associated with a host of emotional problems. While some of these problems stem from the direct effects of the disease on the brain, they can also be caused by indirect sources such as the individual’s living conditions. Remember, each individual is different and their emotional needs will differ.
Ways to provide emotional support to someone with dementia

  • Praise and encouragement go a long way. Always approach the situation in a positive way. Continuously praise them, their work, their efforts and give them a lot of encouragement when they may be frustrated.
  • Reassurance is key. Make your presence known and reassure then that they have your support – this can be as simple as saying “I’m here, I will help you.”
  • Don’t belittle them or give them harsh criticism. Steer away from negativity as you run the risk of upsetting them
  • Give them attention and get involved in doing the things they like. If your loved one wants to play a game of cards, try to take the time out to do it with them. Doing activities they enjoy with loved ones is a great way to provide emotional support
  • Help them feel like they have a purpose. You can do this by encouraging them to take up hobbies and things they enjoy, giving them opportunities to socialise and be involved in family activities, and encouraging them to share their thoughts and opinions

Emotional changes
People with dementia go through a range of emotional changes. From the moment of diagnosis, they are likely to go through a range of emotions like anger, fear, grief, frustration and feeling powerless. It may also trigger depression and anxiety in some people. These new emotions are difficult for them to handle and can put caregivers through a lot of frustration as they try to navigate them. People with dementia may have less control over their feelings and how they express them. They also may become more distant.
Tips for handling their emotional responses:

  • Continuously put yourself in their shoes and try to understand how they feel and why they might feel the way they do.
  • In order to try to understand what they’re saying, first, consider the context of what is being said. Look beyond what your loved one is saying to find the meaning behind the words and respond to the feelings they may be expressing
  • Respond to their emotions. Recognise and respect feelings regardless of whether they are reacting to something serious or trivial. Say something like, “It sounds like you are upset that it didn’t work out.”
  • Don’t dismiss their worries or make them feel like their feelings are invalid. Always listen and show them that you genuinely care about them.
  • However, it’s also good to refocus their attention. Instead of letting them dwell on negative thoughts and feelings, rather try to redirect the conversation. It’s all about carefully listening and following the flow of the conversation. “While it is a shame that Katy can’t come to visit today because of her son's health, I’m sure she’ll visit you soon. What are some good memories they’ve had with her growing up?”
  • Remind yourself to live in and enjoy the moment. Don’t think too much about the future, respond to how the feelings they’re expressing now

When they experience strong emotions, it can be a result of unmet needs, which carers should try to pinpoint and meet these needs. It can also be a result of them simply not being able to think clearly about the situation and overreacting, in which case you just need to be patient and reassure them that everything is okay.
Managing the emotional needs of someone with dementia can often feel like a daunting task. At the end of the day, what matters is that you try. The best thing to remember is that each person is still an individual, and how you respond in any situation should be personal to them. Be present and show them that you care – that can go a long way to building a loving, supportive relationship with your loved one.
If you have a loved one with dementia and in need of support, contact Livewell Estates, a specialised dementia and Alzheimer’s care facility in Cape Town and Johannesburg –

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