Dementia & Dignity: How Not to Treat an Adult with Alzheimer's

Sunrise Senior Living  |  September 28, 2020
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Watching a senior loved one struggle with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia is heartbreaking for families. It’s often referred to as “the long goodbye” because the disease slowly robs an adult of their ability to remain active and independent. For many family members, protecting their loved one’s dignity becomes one of their most pressing concerns.

If this is a situation you find yourself in, we have some suggestions that might help guard against a loss of dignity and self-esteem as dementia progresses.

Protecting Dignity and Self-Esteem

1. Share your loved one’s story.

Those who didn’t’ know the senior before their diagnosis, may appreciate learning more about them. Take a few minutes to tell caregivers, physicians, and other staff a little bit about your loved one. Share what they did for a living, what their hobbies were, and who their family is. This allows people to see the person behind the disease.

Doing the same with family members, especially those they haven’t seen in a while, provides a great opportunity for reminiscing. Research shows how beneficial it is to help people with a memory impairment connect with their memories.

2. Be mindful of your tone and language.

When an adult with dementia has decreased verbal skills and difficulty with memory, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to carry on a conversation. Unintentionally, people they interact with might adopt a tone that feels patronizing or they may even resort to “baby talk.” Both can be damaging to the senior’s self-esteem. Remind family and visitors to talk in a normal voice, just a little slower.

You can also defend the senior’s dignity by not allowing people to talk about the senior in front of them. Even if the older adult has lost verbal skills and can’t respond, they can hear you. For example, if they have a doctor’s appointment, include the senior in conversations to the extent possible. Encourage staff to do the same. Be prepared to discreetly step in, if your loved one begins to struggle and you sense their self-esteem is suffering.

Finally, be mindful of the language you use. For example, say “brief” instead of “diaper” or “clothes protector” in lieu of “bib.” It’s just one more example of how you can protect your loved one’s pride and shield them from inadvertent negativity.

3. Encourage independence.

Dementia researchers often say that the more you do for someone with dementia, the more you take away from them. In an effort to make life easier, you may actually be robbing them of their independence.

Allow the senior to do, or at least attempt to do, as many of their daily tasks as they are able to safely complete. Be patient with them. Step in to help only when it’s truly necessary, even if it takes them longer.

4. Learn to listen and observe.

Dementia can change an adult’s perceived reality. Rather than continually trying to orient them to the present—listen and observe. Exercise empathy. In most cases, there is nothing to be gained by attempting to change their perceptions. Because of the physical damage the disease causes, they likely don’t have the ability to reason or remember. By constantly correcting them, you will likely leave your loved one feeling frustrated and defeated.

Validation Technique in Dementia Care

As Sunrise Senior Living, we are committed to treating each resident as the unique individual they are. For those who have Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia, that often means utilizing the validation technique. By validating a senior’s feelings, we can help bring meaning and purpose to their days. You can read more about it in this interview with Rita Altman, Sunrise’s Senior Vice President of Memory and Learning.


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