Alzheimer’s and dementia patients go through a lot of changes over the years after diagnosis — and so do caregivers and family members. REAL Services is northern Indiana’s resource for patients and caregivers. Find a REAL Services office near you today.
Imagine waking up one day in your home and not remembering which cabinet the cereal is kept on or how to unlock the back door.
That’s a frustrating reality for people experiencing Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to call an assisted living center. Billy Van Elk, AIA, a project architect at Epoch Architecture and Planning in South Bend, has years of experience working in memory care architecture. He said there are a lot of things you can do to make home easier to navigate for a family member experiencing memory loss.
“What you’re attempting to minimize is frustration and anxiety,” Van Elk said. “The more anxiety or frustration you have in the day, the more you lose sight of your real personality. You don’t want someone to focus on the things they can’t do. You want them to experience the things they can do.”
Here are the things Van Elk said you can do to help your loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia.
- Make sure your loved one can go outside in a controlled environment
Nobody likes feeling locked in a cage. If the house has a screened-in porch or fenced in backyard, make sure that the door to that space is unlocked and any stairs are safe to climb up and down.
“If someone has the freedom whenever they want to, to go out, that’s a huge relief of a mental burden,” Van Elk said.
- Look for areas around the house where it can be easy to fall
Is the house a split-level home? Is the living room sunken? Are there short staircases with only a couple stairs but no railing? Van Elk recommends installing a small ramp or a railing to make those areas easier to navigate for someone with limited mobility and memory loss.
“Even if it’s one or two steps. A 35-year-old or 2-year-old might be fine, but a 75-year-old mom might have a serious fall,” Van Elk said.
- Make sure every object has a place — and that it’s always there
“Routine is a big part of your day, so think of ways you can make finding things routine and easy,” Van Elk said. “That might be as simple as the cereal is always arranged in the same order.”
Make sure that snacks, pots and pans, clothes and other items all have a specific place and that they’re put back exactly where they “should” be. This will save your loved one frustration from searching all over for an item that would be easy to find if there was a normal place for it.
- Don’t try to modernize (most of) the house
With Alzheimer’s and dementia, the most recent memories are the first to go, while the oldest memories stay the longest. At a certain point, learning how to use the latest iPhone or new TV remote is going to lead to a lot of frustration and won’t be helpful at all.
Van Elk recommends keeping items around that remind your loved one of older memories or the era they grew up in. “Maybe it’s their favorite teddy bear or blanket. A toy they had as a kid,” he said. “Don’t lock (these items) up or make your loved one feel like we’re valuing the past by locking it up.”
If your loved one lives with you in your house, Van Elk suggests making their bedroom a time capsule to the time they grew up in. That can be as easy as finding bedspreads and wall hangings from the 1960s or making sure there are plenty of pictures around.
“Emphasize the things they can remember instead of correcting the things they can’t,” Van Elk said.
- Something you can (and should) modernize? Light bulbs
At some point, many memory care patients lose track of daytime and nighttime and their circadian rhythm gets thrown off. They might sleep for a few hours and wake up thinking that it’s time for breakfast when it’s 1 a.m.
Making sure your loved one has plenty of access to daylight during the day can be an easy way to help, but color-changing light bulbs can really make a difference. They’re more expensive, but some newer bulbs like the Phillips Hue system can be programmed to be more blue-hued “daylight” light during the day time and of a more red dusk light at night. The red-hued light doesn’t stimulate the brain as much as the blue-hued light does, so it can be a way to signal the time of day without windows.
Getting enough sleep at night helps everyone’s brain function better. It’s especially important for older adults with Alzheimer’s or dementia.
- You also can (and should) modernize door knobs
This is simple: door knobs are often difficult to grasp. Changing door handles throughout the house to the lever-style handles make it easier for everyone to get in and out of the house and between rooms with ease.
- Consider making the bathroom more accessible
This change could be as simple as putting in a different toilet or as difficult as a complete remodel. It can be easy for a loved one to fall getting in or out of a bathtub, so a retrofitted walk-in tub can be helpful.
- Think about getting a medical boom lift
If your loved one struggles getting in and out of bed or a chair, you might consider getting a medical lift boom. This can be helpful especially if you have an in-home caretaker, but can also be of use without a professional caretaker.
Lift booms can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, but you might be able to get one for a little bit cheaper from friends or neighbors who have used them in the past.
- Install other safety precautions
There are more safety hazards in your home than just stairs. Consider installing shutoffs for gas appliances, Van Elk said.
“This can cause frustration but at some point you’re walking the line of ‘Am I eliminating frustration or am I eliminating them burning the house down or filling the house with gas?’” he said. “Yes, be optimistic, but also know that this person cannot do A, B or C at some point.”
That’s not to say that cooking is off the table. In fact, since many people learn to cook at a young age, cooking with your loved one can be really rewarding. They’ll likely remember how to do certain tasks and can feel like they’ve accomplished something that helps the family.
- Block off long hallways, especially if there are several locked doors
If your home has a labyrinth of hallways or even just one hallway with a lot of doors that will be locked, it’s a good idea to block off this area with a gate. A baby gate will do, but a shower curtain blocking your loved one from seeing what they can’t get to can also help reduce frustration, Van Elk said.
- Make sure they’re getting socialized
Everyone needs socialization, especially memory care patients. If they live alone or spend a lot of time alone, make sure there are friends and neighbors who can stop by even for an hour once a week, Van Elk said. Consider hiring a nurse who visits weekly and builds a relationship with your loved one.
Socialization goes beyond having people to talk to as well. Make sure they have the ability to engage with the world around them. Consider getting a subscription to a newspaper or large-print magazine on a topic they like.
“It’s routine, it’s easy for them to understand,” Van Elk said. “That dose of familiarity is really helpful.”