Familiarity and routine benefit most people - often the things we are most familiar with and the things we do every day are a large part of what makes us who we are.
All throughout our lives, familiarity and routine reinforces our identity and memories through repetition.
Unfortunately, severe memory loss and other changes to the brain caused by diseases like dementia can eat away at our sense of who we are and what we want to be doing. As the disease progresses, the strongest memories tend to endure and the only the most ingrained routines are still familiar.
We see examples of this in elders with dementia when they start confusing their children with siblings who are long deceased or try to go home to a place which they haven’t lived in for years. They can be left with only formative memories and life-long habits to try make sense of the world they find themselves is and, when they can’t, it can cause stress, anxiety, and irrational behaviour.
So routine and familiarity is vital to those with memory loss and dementia. A large change, especially in the home environment, can be hugely upsetting and can lead to a whole range of problems as the weakened mind is now faced with a new world to navigate without the ability to take it in and adapt healthily.
Sticking to daily routines helps reduce stress and anxiety because everyone involved knows what to expect, this is why people with dementia thrive on familiarity. If they can still perform an activity, they retain their sense of control and independence. Keep routines in line with what the person with dementia has done for most of their life - if they always brush their teeth before breakfast, maintain that routine.
Establishing familiar patterns of events and daily activities early after the condition becomes noticeable helps transfer the daily routine into long-term memory. For people living with memory loss and dementia these become the things that they hold onto when the rest of the world seems out of control. Stay flexible. Recognize that, as the disease progresses, abilities will change.
So how can you help your loved one if they are in the early stages of memory loss or dementia?
The first things to look out for are their waking, dressing, grooming and eating routines. Pay attention to the times that these take place, and how they like to do these things. Also take note of their favourite food and drinks, their favourite clothes and even their favourite colours. You will be able to help them further along down the line when they are no longer able to remember these small details without prompting, alleviating some of their fear and confusion.
Other details you can take note of, or even spend time writing down together with them, are what type of music they like, their favourite song (and why it’s their favourite), what sort of television shows they enjoy, who their favourite actors are, what was their least favourite food as a child?
It is important to try to let your loved one do as much as they can for themselves for as long as they can, but they will eventually need you and others to assist them to feel empowered. Not allowing too many changes or disruptions will give your loved one the safe space they need to still be able to express themselves.
If you choose to get carers to help you look after your loved one, try to establish these relationships as early as possible while the mind is still able to take them in. Create a small group that is familiar rather than relying entirely on one carer as this also reduces disruption if one of the carers leaves for any reason.
At CareCompany we have walked the long road of living with dementia side-by-side with our clients and their families. We are here to share the burden and to share our skills and experiences with everyone involved.
We’re here to help!