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Caregiving: Understanding the emotional impact of dementia

Written by Julie Potyraj

In part one of a four-part series on caregiving and dementia, Julie Potyraj, community manager for the online master of public health at The George Washington University, looks into the emotional symptoms many dementia patients experience and what caregivers can do to help.

It’s understood that dementia can impair a person’s ability to remember, communicate, think, and reason. But beyond the practical aspects of the disease, dementia has emotional consequences as well. Below are some common behavioral and psychiatric symptoms that can occur in many dementia patients.

Depression or anxiety after diagnosis. A dementia or Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis can trigger intense emotions in many people. The person diagnosed may experience feelings ranging from shock and disbelief to grief and fear. For people with lasting feelings of sadness or anxiety, talk therapy can be helpful, or, in some cases, medication.

Changes in emotional responses. People with dementia may have less control over how they’re feeling and their emotional expressions. They may have volatile mood swings, irritability, or become inappropriately agitated in certain situations. Some people may appear to be distant or disinterested in what’s going on around them.

Anger and agitation. In later stages of the disease, a person may have physical or emotional outbursts, visible emotional distress, or periods of agitation. Feelings of anger can be exacerbated by new places and people, loud noise, or a lot of activity.

Lower self-esteem. People with dementia may feel “out of control” and lose confidence in themselves or their ability to perform basic functions. They may also feel the impact of the social stigma of dementia and perceive a real or imagined difference in the way people treat them. All of this can have a devastating effect on someone’s sense of self-worth.

What Caregivers Can Do

Fortunately, there are things caregivers can do to help lessen the brunt of emotional changes in their loved one with dementia. These include:

  • Validating the patient’s worries instead of dismissing them.
  • Giving the person adequate time to calm down after an outburst.
  • Trying not to take emotional responses personally.
  • Employing a healthy sense of humor, when appropriate.

Caregivers are also encouraged to involve their loved one in everyday tasks—for example, asking what they would like for dinner. This can give the patient a sense of control during a time when they feel they have no say in what’s happening around them. Empathy and patience go a long way in helping to preserve the dignity of those struggling with dementia.

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