Baby Steps: Caring for Parents with Dementia

It is a grey, frigid winter day; the snow is covered with a layer of ice. We’re driving down the highway when we see her – small, elderly, fragile and unstable, walking gingerly over jagged pieces of ice and gravel. It is only a matter of time before she falls, so we pull over and just as we do, she slips. She doesn’t know her name; she doesn’t have a phone, a purse or any contact information. The fall has caused bleeding from her head. While we wait for the ambulance, we try to ask her for a family member’s name or number, and she can’t tell us. She has dementia.

This is every adult child’s worst nightmare. But it doesn’t need to come to that. Pat Irwin of Eldercare Canada says there are steps we can take to make sure our parents are safe, especially if they are showing signs of dementia.

First, it’s important to acknowledge the signs and anticipate any needs that have to be met. “Are their clothes clean? Do they smell fresh? Are their glasses filthy? Open the fridge and see what is actually being eaten. Look in the garbage. What is being consumed? Is it tea and toast? Subtly check the living space: a lot of clutter, food lying around and stuff like that is a big leading indicator,” says Irwin.

If they are showing these signs, Irwin has a few suggestions on what to do so that you can feel comfortable leaving them home alone. “Maybe this is a time to introduce a cleaning person or a cleaning service. Check the house to make sure it is accessible and safe from the exterior,” says Irwin. If you feel that your parent needs help driving or with groceries, put a companion in place whom they can become familiar with. “There should be a schedule so you can anticipate and they can plan. So, let’s say twice a week, the driver comes and they do the groceries one day and an outing of some kind on another day. Put that in place before the snow. So Dad already knows this person.”

If your parent is a little defensive at the idea of having someone do things for them, a MedicAlert bracelet might be something to consider. Irwin describes it as “micro-chipping” your parent. It acts as an invisible support. In case of an emergency, “You are contacted and the chronic conditions and medications are on file and this is really, really important. Because if your mom is at a shopping mall and she gets all woozy and funny and they get a first responder or 911, if they know she has diabetes, it could be just be a blood sugar thing. Otherwise, they may think she’s had a stroke or a heart attack and who knows what they will do as they spring into action. It’s really, really, important to know medications and chronic conditions because that’s a really quick indicator of what might be wrong.”  For $5 a month, it may be more feasible than hiring a service.

Irwin also recommends programming your number in your parent’s cellphone as ICE, In Case of Emergency. “Anybody who finds your mom can scroll, find it, press it and contact you.” If you don’t live in the same city as your parents, consider having a support team to check in every once in a while. “It takes a village, especially if you’re long distance. You need your little army of support people to help you out and be your eyes and ears,” says Irwin.

Whatever your plans are as you enter into this next stage of life with your parents, consider what they must be going through, be sensitive to that and do your research. “What a person wants to do is have personal dignity and personal control. If somebody comes gangbusters and says, ‘This has to happen,’ you’ve insulted their dignity and you’ve invaded his personal space so you know it isn’t going to work.”

-Tianna Robinson