Finding new joy
Many things can bring joy, including focusing on the “now” with loved ones. “It’s finding the ability to live in the moment,” says Landsverk. She suggests caregivers start with thinking about what their loved one enjoyed in the past, but not get stuck there. Understanding what brought joy and then modifying those activities as the situation changes is one of the fundamental tenets of finding happiness with that person, according to Landsverk.
“They may no longer be able to paint pictures, but perhaps they can make collages. Eating out at a restaurant might result in an angry scene, but a picnic could be a lovely substitute,” offers Landsverk. “A night at the ballpark might no longer be possible, but maybe walking around the ballpark before a game or engaging your loved one in a game of dominoes with others could be pleasurable.”
Landsverk also emphasizes “the joy of connection.” Even for people who are no longer verbally responsive, there are ways to enjoy aspects of human interaction and experiences through touch or music. Music is particularly powerful, and our memories of songs reside in a slightly different part of our brains than words. Landsverk has observed people who cannot answer questions sing church hymns perfectly, bringing joy and comfort to all. She recalls a performance by a bongo player at a senior center where some older adults responded with joyful expressions and by swaying and “singing” along.
Try to determine what simple activities, including group ones, can still be enjoyed, such as going for a walk, watching children at the park or even just holding hands. The key is to try to keep the person with dementia active and engaged and try to bring them with you until they can no longer handle the situation. “We also need to recognize that giving up some of these traditions will be hard,” says Landsverk. “Try not to put yourself in a situation that will make you sad or depressed.”
Landsverk adds that “caregivers may grow frustrated, unaware that very simple adjustments to daily routines can sometimes make all the difference for a dementia patient.” She reminds us that just like anyone else, people with dementia need meaningful activities to fill their days. family is in the best position to help them find purpose in their day, even through small things.
One aspect of her work is helping families recognize that aggressive and agitated behaviors can often be related to medications commonly given for insomnia or anxiety. “Mis-medication can limit the joy of the elder,” says Landsverk. “Oftentimes when I take elders off certain medications, they are less confused and agitated, [which allows] them to engage more with family.” Getting the dosages right can often mean the difference between the family being able to keep their loved one home longer and the feeling of needing to put them in a nursing home. Equally important, according to Landsverk, is the treatment of pain. This is critical, since a loved one may become angry and withdrawn unless pain is treated appropriately.
‘Living in the now’
Families and patients need a reason for optimism, according to Landsverk, who has seen families and patients successfully meet the challenges of dementia. “Dignity, grace and even joy are still possible with the relevant information and an integrated plan,” she says.
There is a heartbreaking misconception, after families receive a dementia diagnosis, that life for that person won’t be worth living. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” she says. “Life can still be rich, but it requires that we reconsider some of our assumptions and expectations about day-to-day living and about dementia.”
“Living in the ‘now’ with your loved one means you can still enjoy good times together,” says Landsverk. She points out that for some, the quality of family life and the depth of relationships can even improve with dementia. The father who was always busy working now has time for his family; the son is able to spend more time talking with his mother. “Life can continue to bring love, joy and fulfillment.”
Lee Woodruff is a caregiver, speaker and author. She and her husband, Bob, cofounded the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which assists injured service members and their families. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.