Singer Tony Christie has shared his positive approach to his dementia diagnosis, saying: “If you start worrying about it, you’re finished. Ignore it, carry on.”
Best known for his 1971 hit (Is This The Way To) Amarillo, the 79-year-old, who has Irish family roots, said: “I’ve always been, for 50 years, a fanatic at doing crosswords, and suddenly I started finding it very hard.”
Doctors confirmed it’s ‘an early start of dementia’ – but he’s still working, having released an album in November, and he’s doing a tour this year.
Dementia is most commonly associated with memory loss, but can also affect the way that people speak, think, feel and behave. So, if a loved one is diagnosed, how can you best support them?
Fran Vandelli, a dementia lead for Bupa Care Services, says: “It’s important to remember that with the right support, people with dementia can live well, and you’ve still got time to make good memories together.”
Try to be patient and positive
“One of the most important things you can do is be patient,” says Vandelli. “When people living with dementia are confused, they can get upset or frustrated, but you can be a calming influence and help them feel better. Be there to offer a shoulder to cry on, and a morale boost when they need it.
“For people living with dementia of any type, the focus is often on what they can’t do rather than what they can do. They may stop being asked to babysit their grandchildren or nip to the shops, which can feel disempowering, especially if they’re still able to do these things.”
Don’t be afraid to talk to them about memories
“While someone in the earlier stages of dementia might not be able to remember last night’s football match, they might still be able to share stories of how they used to watch their favourite team growing up,” says Vandelli.
“If your loved one finds themselves unable to find the right words to express themselves, watch and listen carefully, as they could be using gestures or facial expressions.”
Don’t be afraid to say if you haven’t quite understood what they’ve meant, she says “and feel free to offer a word, if you think you know what they’re trying to say”.
Be tactful though. “Try not to talk over someone, finish their sentences or cut them off from contributing. Just because they can’t find the words, it doesn’t mean they have nothing to say.”
If they’re in the later stages of dementia or if answering questions is becoming overwhelming for them, she suggests using simple closed ‘yes/no’ questions, or offering choices using objects as visual prompts (for example, offering a cup of tea with a tea bag).
Don’t immediately take over
Offer support but only where it’s needed, advises Vandelli. “Don’t rush to take over things like cooking or managing bills, as this may reduce your love one’s skills before it’s necessary.
“Instead, empower them to do things themselves, or offer to do things together. Setting reminders on their calendar like ‘take out the bins’ can help them retain a sense of independence,” she says.
“As the condition progresses, it may also be useful to start labelling items or rooms around the home, so people know where they’re going and how to switch things on and off. Decluttering will not only make it easier for people to find the things they need, but reduce their chances of trips and falls.”
It’s important to keep them involved though. Helping your loved one retain a level of independence can help them live well with the disease.
Plan for the future
There will probably come a time when they need more support and a care home. “There’s no shame in reaching out for this kind of help,” Vandelli says. “It’s all about finding the best outcomes for your loved one and can ultimately have a positive impact on everyone involved.
“By being proactive now, you can get a good idea of the support available, which will help you move quickly when it’s needed.”
Just be there
In the later stages of some forms of dementia, you might wonder if it’s even worth visiting if they can’t remember the visit or don’t fully understand who you are. But, as Vandelli says, a person’s need for social contact doesn’t disappear because they have the disease.
“The feelings of companionship and purpose go hand in hand,” she says. “Even in the later stages of the condition, when your loved one might struggle to recognise you or remember your time together, they can still benefit from knowing that they have someone nearby.
“Simple things, like holding someone’s hand and reassuring them, can make a huge difference.”