Dementia affects the lives of nearly everyone it touches. It extends far beyond the person who has it. Dementia changes the way others interact with, talk to, and care for a person. Unlike normal aging, dementia can cause people to wander dangerously, react violently, and forget loved ones' faces.
These are, of course, worst-case scenarios. Most people with dementia get through their days fairly well. Yet caregivers know that dementia care can feel restrictive and even pointless. In spite of all efforts, the disease progresses. Medicines and therapies cannot stop or reverse it. They can only slow it down. However, there is hope.
A new movement in dementia care looks at more than just a brain under duress. Holistic dementia care focuses on the entire person. This new outlook can help those within the circle of care provide assistance in innovative ways.
The biggest struggle many dementia caregivers face is that dementia sufferers frequently lose the ability to communicate their feelings constructively or directly. Their brains have begun to lose connections. This means that caregivers must try to find out if their patients are in pain, upset, or perfectly happy.
By including information from doctors and loved ones to understand a dementia sufferer's whole situation, "holistic" or "person-centered" care becomes possible.
Most people, including seniors, value their independence. Yet for a dementia sufferer, independence can be dangerous. Dementia sufferers are at risk for wandering, forgetting safety precautions, and becoming confused even in their own homes. Holistic dementia care would emphasize setting up safeguards such as secure locks, round-the-clock care, and a fall-preventive home design.
Beyond that, the person should have as much independence as possible. People who feel they can care for themselves, at least somewhat, are less prone to depression, moodiness, aggression, or confusion. If they cannot bathe themselves, at least they can choose their clothing or dress themselves. If they cannot use a knife for cooking safely, they can still stir or mix ingredients with a spoon. With supervision, a person with dementia may be able to wash dishes. Holistic dementia care allows dementia sufferers to control as much of their environment as is safe and comfortable for them.
Holistic dementia care emphasizes self-chosen social activities the person finds stimulating. Bored people often become depressed or anxious, so holistic dementia care encourages getting out of the house and enjoying favorite activities.
Keeping someone happy when the person frequently becomes confused, disoriented, or angry can seem like a daunting task. Sometimes, though, it can be as easy as not sweating the small stuff. If an elderly person is confused about what year it is, it does no harm to agree that it is 1987, 1965, or 2002. It will not harm dementia sufferers to live in benign delusions or to dwell on memory lane as if it were happening now. Many caregivers, professional and informal, find it is better to avoid catastrophic incidents and the unhappiness they bring. This sometimes means not arguing over information the dementia patient's brain cannot process.
Caregivers do well to identify what makes a beloved dementia sufferer happy. During lucid periods, people with dementia may feel that they are losing their very sense of self. This may be terrifying to them. They may be happier if they can remember or be reminded of pleasant family gatherings, play familiar games, or cook favorite meals together. When confusion occurs, and it will, caregivers should not "correct" unless it could lead to danger. Gentle reminders and signals that everything is fine, such as a pat on the shoulder, a familiar tune whistled or hummed, or a favorite TV show can reassure a dementia sufferer.
Patience is paramount. The demented brain is fighting to make sense of a world in which connections are being extinguished. Calm caregivers who know what keeps their loved ones happy can keep things on an even keel.
Traditional Chinese treatments, it seems, have some validity in dementia care. A 2007 study showed some promise in treating symptoms of dementia (essentially, slowing its progress) using herbal supplements and herb-based pharmaceuticals. This may be a holistic, less toxic way to help slow the progress of dementia in the earlier stages. Since these herbal treatments can sometimes be used alongside traditional pharmaceuticals, this allows for more treatment options.
Caregivers do well to find ways to include healthy foods, drinks, and doctor-approved vitamin supplements in loved ones' diets. Treating the person holistically cannot harm and may very well help.
Mayo Clinic Staff. Dementia: Treatment. Available at http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dementia/diagnosis-treatment/treatment/txc-20198533. Mayo Clinic, April 5, 2016. Retrieved September 16, 2016.
Tucker, Jennifer. (November 2012). A Dementia Care Revolution. Provider. Available at http://www.providermagazine.com/archives/archives-2012/Pages/1112/A-Dementia-Care-Revolution.aspx. Retrieved September 16, 2016.
Yan, Han, Li, Lin, and Tang, Xi Can. (June 2007). Treating senile dementia with traditional Chinese medicine. Clinical Interventions in Aging, 2 (2): 201-208. Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2684515/. Retrieved September 16, 2016.