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Give the Gift of Dignity in Dementia

by Judy Cornish

How to help someone with dementia retain their sense of self

A very important way to help our loved ones with dementia retain their sense of self is to give them opportunities to be kind and helpful. There is nothing more uplifting and effective at helping us feel better about ourselves than being able to do something for someone else.

When we create opportunities for our loved ones to give something to us or do something for us, we are helping them achieve contentment and well-being.

Give a chance to be helpful

Having dementia means becoming less able not only to do things for ourselves but also for others. And yet, being able to offer something of value in our relationships is essential for quality of life.

Look for ways to make it possible for your loved one or client to be helpful, even though losing rational thought and memory makes it increasingly difficult to perform tasks.

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One of the skills lost in rational thought is being able to perceive sequences or steps in a process. This means that your loved one will become unable to do such tasks as making coffee, setting the table, or washing a load of laundry. They will not, however, become unable to perform single steps with a little gentle direction. Although he cannot make coffee alone, you might ask for help in setting out or filling two mugs, or carrying them to the table. Although she might be unable to set the table entirely, she may be able to put a plate at each place. Folding a laundry basket of tea towels or facecloths is a task that makes many people feel helpful and needed.

Recently, one of our clients had to transition from home into a memory care facility. We were careful to arrange for her DAWN caregiver to continue to visit her there. Her family arranged to take turns visiting her each day. However, when they took her to her new home she was delighted. She had been a nurse for many years and, upon walking inside, she looked around and said, “Oh—thank you for giving me my job back!” Her transition from home to care facility was painless because she believed that she had been appointed as the administrative nurse to oversee the care of her new housemates.

Give a chance to give

Having dementia means being the constant recipient of attention and assistance, yet we all need to be able to give as well as receive. Even if it is only a hug or a listening ear, we need to be careful to give those experiencing dementia the opportunity to give back to us.

At DAWN, when we see that a client needs a hug, we say we need one and ask her to give one to us. She gets the hug and physical reassurance she needs, but she also gets the pleasure of having helped someone else. During the holiday season, we carefully make the selection and giving of gifts a part of our care plans, so that our clients can enjoy being gracious and generous. Giving is an essential part of maintaining and enjoying a sense of well-being.

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When we help our loved ones and clients continue to retain a sense of self, despite dementia, we help ourselves too. We will lower our own stress as caregivers by increasing their sense of well-being.

How to help someone with dementia feel needed—Quick Tips

Ask for a hug when you see they need one.

At DAWN, when we see that a client needs a hug, we say that we need one and ask her to give us one. She gets the reassurance she needs, but she also gets the pleasure of helping us.

Ask them to help with something that involves ONLY ONE step.

People experiencing dementia are losing the ability to remember the steps in a process. They may not be able to help by making coffee because that involves many steps, but they could help by setting out the cups or pouring the coffee. Another favorite task of our clients is to fold washcloths or tea towels. Feeling needed contributes greatly to the well-being of someone experiencing dementia.

Reminisce about things they’ve helped you with in the past.

They may not remember, but when you tell the story of how they helped you, it will bring them satisfaction and a greater sense of who they are.


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