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Coping with Dementia: Simple therapies to remember during Coronavirus quarantine

By Debbie Selsalvage Posted on April 1, 2020

If caring for a loved one living at home with dementia were not difficult enough under normal circumstances, now it is further complicated by social distancing guidelines during the Coronavirus crisis.  For this trying time, you can no longer attend a support group, nor can you get respite by taking your person to daycare.  Now, you are stuck at home, which in and of itself may increase your loved one’s anxiety.  What is a care partner to do?

Now is a good time to remember to try those simple therapies that will not only consume time productively but can bring comfort to your loved one.  Here a few examples:

Nostalgia Therapy for Dementia

It is not uncommon for individuals living with dementia to lose their recent memories, but be able to retain recollection of an earlier time in their life.  Sometimes, they “go there” and seem to live in that earlier time.  This should not be dismissed as “delusion;” rather it should be recognized as a valuable tool for effective care.  Use nostalgic artifacts or a family photo album to reminiscence about their past life to validate the reality that seems to give them comfort.

Remember that their reality or recollection of the past may not quite be the same as yours.  For example, if you are sharing a photo album, don’t say, “Do you remember who this is?”  This question is a challenge to confirm what you know to be real.  Rather, just point at the photo and say, “What can you tell me about this?”  Your person with dementia may misidentify the person or the situation in the photo, but this does not matter.  Let them talk about how they see things, then praise, affirm, and validate what they have told you.

Nostalgia therapy and hug therapy are two great tools for the Dementia caregiver.Image by Dan/Kelli Oakley from Pixabay

Hug Therapy

Hugs are proven to work, especially for people living with brain disorders, but many of our care partners don’t practice it enough.  I saw it work with my husband Albert, so effectively that he was removed entirely from mood-altering medication.  If your loved one is not comfortable with hugs, just try a loving touch and remind them that you are there for them.  This will help them understand they are not alone.

Music Therapy

Music Therapy is another proven non-medical therapy that can work wonders.  Similar to Nostalgia Therapy, it seems to work best when we choose music that our loved one enjoyed between the ages of eight and 20.  To see just how effective music therapy can be, go to YouTube and watch “Alive Inside.” 

Music is an effective therapy for Dementia and Alzheimers. Image by Mircea Iancu from Pixabay

Here are five tips for how to use music as an effective therapy for Dementia & Alzheimers:

  1. For each individual, identify the songs that evoke memories of happy times.  One hint in identifying this playlist is the fact that the music we most strongly embed in our memories are the songs we recall from ages 8 to 20.
  2. To calm a person during mealtime or the morning hygiene routine, play or sing soothing music.  You need not rely only on I-pod technology.  If you know what they like, sing to them.
  3. Avoid over-stimulation by eliminating competing noises. Shut the door. Turn off the television. If using a radio, select a station where the music is not interrupted by commercials. 
    NOTE: There is very little on television that is calming or suitable for an individual living with dementia, especially not televised news.  When they view a story about a fire or bombing, they don’t know whether it is in London or across the street.  Care facilities that use television as a baby sitter for individuals living with dementia are definitely not practicing enlightened, effective, or compassionate care!
  4. Encourage movement and involvement.  Encourage the individual to clap or tap their feet to the beat, to sing along, or even to dance if the environment and circumstances enable them to do so safely.
  5. Pay attention to the person’s responses.  If they like a particular song, play or sing it often.  You may get tired of it, but they will not.  If they react negatively to a particular song or style of music, make a note and eliminate it from the playlist.

Doll Therapy

Many times, a soft doll will become the constant companion of a person living with dementia, especially women. It seems to give them comfort and a sense of purpose.  Some people think an older person holding a doll is “demeaning.” I don’t agree.  If it gives your loved one comfort, it is not demeaning.  There’s a lesson here.  We, as care partners, must sometimes put our own opinions and feelings aside in favor of how something makes our loved one feel.

Dogs and cats provide comfort to those suffering from alzheimers and dementia. Image by Besno Pile from Pixabay

Animal Therapy

No need to say much about this!  Who doesn’t love a puppy or a kitty?  Many memory care communities maintain “house pets” because they know how much their residents enjoy and love them.  But if you do not own a pet, there is an alternative similar to doll therapy.  On the internet, you can purchase dog or cat “dolls” that seem to be breathing while they sleep.  Their side rises and falls while they sleep in their little bed.  You can even get cats that quietly purr while they sleep and breathe. 

I once gave one of these breathing stuffed animals to a woman with dementia who was in a state of anxiety.  Her daughter said, with dismay, “But it’s dead!”  I said, “Maybe to you, but maybe not to her.”  The woman with dementia put the stuffed animal in her lap, smiled, and became calm.  This happened during a support group meeting, and for more than an hour, she sat and quietly stroked her new stuffed animal friend. 

Plant Therapy

Even people in later stages of dementia can love the beauty of plants.  However, if they are able, you may want to ask your person to help you tend your plants.  Sure, they may make a little mess, but working in the soil can give them long periods of joy and comfort. 

longleanna / Pixabay

Simple therapies to remember during Coronavirus quarantine for Coping with Dementia and Alzheimers

These and other simple and time-tested therapies are very effective for individuals living with dementia.  This is because, long after a person with dementia has lost the ability to think and reason, they still retain the ability to “feel.”  This is because the organs in our brain that govern our emotions – the amygdalae – survive and continue to function long after dementia has ravaged the “thinking” parts of the brain. 

Consequently, the “feeling” part of our brain can be the last and only tool a care partner has to work with.  We can do this with simple therapies that have been known and used for decades; in some cases even for centuries. They are proven to work, and they can provide comfort also to you, the care partner, during these trying and unusual times when you are confined to your home.

Debbie Selsavage is a Certified Trainer and Consultant in the Positive Approach to Care, and a Certified Dementia Practitioner.  Her company, Coping with Dementia LLC, is dedicated to making life better for individuals living with dementia.  Contact Debbie at [email protected].

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