Caring for a parent with dementia can become overwhelming, with responsibilities changing as symptoms progress. Tips can include improving communication, compassion, and allowing others to help.

There are many ways a person may help their parent feel more safe and comfortable while continuing to enjoy and cherish their relationship during difficult times.

This article discusses what dementia is and offers some tips for dealing with parents who have dementia. It also suggests some resources that may support caregivers for people with dementia.

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Dementia is a general term describing a group of cognitive symptoms that include memory, language, and problem-solving difficulties. In 2014, there were 5 million adults in the United States with dementia.

Although the risk of dementia increases as a person ages, it is not a natural part of aging. Dementia can present differently from person to person, but symptoms may include:

  • forgetting things, such as people’s names, places, and recent events
  • difficulty recognizing relatives and friends
  • losing track of time
  • experiencing increasing difficulty with communication
  • changes in behavior, such as wandering and repeating questions
  • needing more help with personal care
  • experiencing mood changes that may sometimes involve aggression
  • becoming confused and disorientated, even in familiar environments

Dementia can progress through various stages, with symptoms gradually worsening. The symptoms a person experiences and the rate they progress can vary.

There are several different causes of dementia. The most common is Alzheimer’s disease, which may cause between 60 and 70% of cases.

Other common types of dementia include:

When a person has a parent with dementia, they may find themselves taking on the role of a caregiver. Caring for a parent with dementia may be a comforting experience, but it may also bring challenges.

As their parent’s condition changes, so will a person’s relationship and involvement. This changing relationship and new responsibilities can be an emotionally trying experience. Some people may find relief in having an explanation for their parent’s symptoms while also feeling grief, anger, or helplessness.

However, there are ways in which a person can seek help and adapt their behavior to support themselves and their parent.

Improve communication skills

A person with dementia may find it increasingly difficult to communicate clearly. They may have difficulty trying to recall certain words, forget parts of a conversation, or become agitated and confused.

A person can adapt the way they communicate with their parent to reassure them and help them feel involved and understood.

Some key skills to focus on when communicating with a parent with dementia include:

  • Conveying a positive mood during interactions: A person can express this through facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language.
  • Minimizing distractions: A family caregiver may wish to limit background noise, such as television or radio, and sit at eye level while maintaining eye contact with their parent.
  • Speaking calmly and clearly: A person can make conversations easier for their parent to follow by using words that are easy to understand, speaking slowly, and ensuring their voice is not too loud or high pitched.
  • Distracting and redirecting: If their parent is becoming agitated and overwhelmed by a conversation, a person can redirect their attention to another activity or topic.
  • Reminding them of fond memories: Someone with dementia may have difficulty remembering the beginning of a conversation, but they can remember fond memories from the past. Conversations around these memories can cheer them up and help them feel more in control.
  • Using a sense of humor: A family caregiver can use humor to lighten the tone and give their parent an opportunity to laugh along with them.

Aim to be flexible and compassionate

A parent with dementia may experience behavior changes that might be challenging for a person to manage. It is important that a person does not try to change their parent and fight against these changes, as this can be met with resistance.

When faced with challenging behaviors, a person can try to:

  • accommodate these behavior changes
  • remain patient and compassionate
  • understand that behaviors may have a purpose and indicate a need that is not being met
  • understand that behaviors may have a trigger, such as a certain time of day or a change in their parent’s environment
  • be flexible and understand that strategies that work today may need to be different tomorrow

A person may wish to contact a doctor if their parent is acting differently or aggressively, as this may suggest they are in pain, having a reaction to medications, or experiencing discomfort.

Notice and manage frustration

Caring for a parent with dementia may require flexibility, resilience, and patience. A person may feel frustrated, but this does not mean they do not care about their parent.

However, if a person is feeling extreme frustration on an ongoing basis, this can affect their well-being and the care they give to their parent.

A person may wish to try the following tips to help manage frustration:

  • Learn to notice the warning signs of frustration: These can include shortness of breath, headache, overeating, or increased alcohol consumption.
  • Take steps to calm down physically: A person can temporarily remove themselves from a situation and take some deep breaths before responding. Meditation, taking a bath, or listening to music may help a person physically relax.
  • Recognize negative thought patterns: A frustrated person may be more prone to overgeneralizing, taking things personally, or ignoring the positives in a situation. Recognizing these thought patterns allows a person to view things more calmly and compassionately.
  • Communicate clearly and assertively: People may become frustrated when they feel unable to express their own needs and limits. Instead of suppressing these feelings or losing their temper, they can aim to calmly assert their feelings and needs without blaming others.

Allow others to help

Being a caregiver for a parent may become increasingly demanding, and a person should feel no shame in seeking help and advice. They may reach out to other family members, friends, and neighbors to help check in and manage their parent’s needs.

A person may also find help for their loved one by arranging in-home care. Having extra assistance can help their parent and allows time for a person to look after themselves, rest, and socialize with others.

Some common types of in-home care include:

  • a companion who visits their parent and shares recreational activities and conversation
  • someone who may assist with personal care such as bathing, dressing, and going to the bathroom
  • a person or team of people who look after the housekeeping, focusing on things such as food shops, meal planning, and cleaning
  • a caregiver who is qualified to address medical concerns, such as looking after wounds, administering injections, or providing physical therapy

The Family Caregiver Alliance offers advice on finding in-home care and questions a person should ask to ensure they find the right assistance for themselves and their parent.

Many caregivers experience stress, and it is important to know that support is available. Some support options for caregivers are listed below:

Even when their parent’s dementia progresses, with support and patience, a person can continue to have a close relationship with their parent and positively affect their life.

Being a caregiver for a parent with dementia may sometimes bring challenges, but many support options are available.

A person who is caregiving should also make sure they look after themselves and ask for help during stressful times.