9 Things to Learn From People Living With Dementia

Grandfather and son in garden

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If you know someone living with Alzheimer's diseasevascular dementiaLewy body dementia, or another type of dementia, you know that these conditions bring many challenges. Symptoms such as memory loss, word-finding difficulty, disorientation, behavioral and psychological symptoms, and general confusion are hard, both for the person experiencing them and for loved ones and caregivers to watch. However, in addition to the difficulty that these challenges bring, they also bring us reminders of several important truths that we often forget in our fast-paced lives. The truth is that if we are willing to listen and watch, we can learn many things from our loved ones who have dementia and experience these difficulties. These reminders from them can serve as gifts to all of us as they help enrich our lives.


Strategies for Coping with a Dementia Diagnosis

Feelings Are Often More Important Than Facts

Do you ever wonder if it really matters? In the midst of the challenges of being a caregiver, it can be easy to run out of time as we try to balance our various obligations. In those moments, you may question the value of spending time with someone who might possibly forget that you were there just moments later.

Research, however, says that although a visit to your loved one who has dementia might be quickly forgotten, the positive feelings you created by your visit will remain long past the specific memory of it. Additionally, spending time with your loved one benefits you, as well as them.

The truth is that paying attention to and being careful with, the feelings of everyone (dementia or not) is important since they will very often remember how we made them feel, above what we said or did. Similar to those living with dementia, this is often the case, whether it was a positive or negative experience. The information provided or the verbal exchange we had with them might diminish, but how we made them feel often has a lasting impact.

Actions Are More Effective Than Words

Sometimes, communication in dementia requires more actions and fewer words. For example, if you're trying to help someone perform their activities of daily living, such as brushing their teeth, you might be more successful if you speak less but demonstrate on yourself how to brush your own teeth. This can serve as a model for your loved one to follow by reminding them what steps to take in order to accomplish the task.

The truth is that in much of life, it's what we do that carries more weight than what we say. We can talk a good talk, but the proof is in our actions. If our words and deeds don't fit with each other, our actions will outweigh our words and will communicate more loudly than what we say, just as they do for those living with dementia.

​Appropriate Physical Touch Is Beneficial

When we're caring for someone with dementia, it's important to remember that they might benefit from physical touch that is not related to trying to do something for them. In other words, hold their hand, brush their hair if they find that soothing and give them a hug. Don't let everything be about getting the task at hand completed.

The truth is that most of us would benefit from increased amounts of appropriate physical touch from others. This communicates that we are loved, cared for, and treasured by those around us. A hug or a pat on the shoulder can go a long way toward conveying worth, encouraging someone or simply brightening our day. The benefits of human touch don't just apply to those with dementia, but to all of us.

Music Is Powerful

Using music in dementia can have powerful effects. The memories and nostalgia can quickly flow upon hearing a favorite song from the past. Your loved one might begin singing along and remembering every word, even if in conversation, they struggle to find enough words to form a sentence. Music can serve as a great distraction too, allowing you to more easily help get them dressed in the morning, for example. Music can also cause a withdrawn person to perk up and begin to tap their foot to the rhythm.

The truth is that music has power for many of us. You can send a song to a friend to remind them that you're thinking of them or hear music in church that encourages you. You might listen to a song from years ago that transports you right back to that time in your life. The beauty of music can stir us to dance, cry, love, doubt and believe, and sometimes, hearing our feelings expressed in song can begin a measure of healing in us when life is difficult. This, too, is a trait we share with those who live with a dementia diagnosis.

Live in the Present

Dementia causes one to focus on today. Because of memory impairment in dementia, your loved one might not be able to recall names of family members or certain events or persons. Both short-term memories, such as what they ate for breakfast, and long-term memories, for instance, the name of the high school that they attended 50 years ago, become impaired in dementia.

Looking ahead into the future is also difficult for those living with dementia. Things that haven't happened yet are abstract in nature, so the general focus is the here and now.

The truth is that we all would be wise to follow the person with dementia's lead by spending more of our time and energy living in the present, instead of getting stuck in regrets or pain of the past or worrying about what's going to happen in the future. Clearly, there are times when we need to process events or issues so that we can move forward in life in a healthy manner, and planning ahead is important. However, we should guard against missing the gift of awakening this morning and living today.

Asking for Help Is Wise

Have you ever heard someone with dementia call out for help? Sometimes, it may seem like the person with dementia gets stuck on calling out to others, but often, it's better than watching those who need help and are too proud or stubborn to ask for it.

The truth is that while independence and isolation are typical in our society, it's not just those who struggle with memory loss that need help. We all need each other and sometimes, we need to learn to ask for help. A sense of community and teamwork is important, and laying down our pride by asking for help can foster interdependent relationships that are transparent and genuine.

Why Stress Over the Little Things?

If someone with dementia is having a hard day and displaying some challenging behaviors, we know that sometimes they need some extra time and space, and we begin to let go of our expectations and our desire for control over the things that really don't matter. For example, is it really that big of a deal that they want to eat dessert first or is wearing socks that don't match? It just doesn't matter, and the day will go so much more smoothly after we adjust our perspective.

The truth is that we often get ourselves so upset over things that don't really matter in the long run. Sometimes, it's very easy to lose perspective on what is actually important. We would all do well to employ the same strategy of letting go that we might use in dementia by reminding ourselves to breathe, let go and place things back in perspective.

Children Are Good Medicine

If you've ever been in a nursing care home or an assisted living facility and watched what happens when young children enter the facility, you know this is true. The day may be quietly moving forward and an older adult with dementia is dozing off in her wheelchair after playing a Bingo game. Suddenly, you hear the sounds of giggles from a visiting family's children and everyone begins to sit up and pay attention. The sleeping resident wakes up, and the resident who is struggling with depression begins to smile and talk to the two-year-old child who is running around the room.

Research on intergenerational programs demonstrates that both children and older adults can benefit from these interactions. The relationships that develop across generations can increase cognitive activity and improve quality of life for both the children and older adults.

The truth is that we're sometimes too busy to pay attention to the children around us. While teachers and parents will clarify that all is not sunshine and roses when children are around, they'll also tell us that spending time with children enriches their lives. Let's not wait until we have dementia to notice the joy of children.

The Disease Is Not the Person

One thing that people living with dementia want us to remember about them is that their disease is not their identity. This is conveyed especially in our language—in the way we talk and write. Dementia advocates have often reminded us that rather than using the term, "the demented patient," we can instead use the words, "the person living with dementia" to convey the fact that the person is primary, not the diagnosis of dementia. This can reduce the stigma attached to the disease.

The truth is that we should know and remember that there are no insignificant people, and a diagnosis, disease, or disability does not reduce the value of a person. Let's catch ourselves the next time we identify someone by their diagnosis (such as, "the cancer patient") and remind ourselves that they are, first and foremost, an individual with unique worth. Those around us are not "less than" just because they are different, were born with a disability or have been diagnosed with a disease. In fact, like the person living with dementia, they may be capable of teaching us several truths that will change our perspective and enrich our lives.

A Word From Verywell

In the midst of the many challenges that those living with dementia face, they offer us poignant reminders of truths that we who are without dementia often forget.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Guzmán-Vélez E, Feinstein JS, Tranel D. Feelings without memory in Alzheimer diseaseCogn Behav Neurol. 2014;27(3):117‐129. doi:10.1097/WNN.0000000000000020

  2. Canedo-Garcia A, Garcia-Sancez J-N, Pacheco-Sanz D-I. A systematic review of the effectiveness of intergenerational programs. Front Psychol. 2017;8:1882. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01882

By Esther Heerema, MSW
Esther Heerema, MSW, shares practical tips gained from working with hundreds of people whose lives are touched by Alzheimer's disease and other kinds of dementia.