Written by Jenny Smiechowski, staff writer for The Birches
Watching out for personal safety, like many other daily tasks, becomes increasingly difficult for someone with dementia. That’s why, when you’re caring for someone with dementia, keeping that person safe is a top priority.
“Someone with dementia doesn’t have much cognitive energy left for considering their own safety,” said Caroline Copeland, an occupational therapist and dementia specialist who works for Legacy Healthcare.
In honor of National Safety Month, Copeland gave a presentation on safety for caregivers at The Birches, sharing tips that are helpful whether you care for someone with dementia in your personal or professional life.
According to Copeland, the first step to keeping someone with dementia safe is knowing how to properly communicate with them, so you can help them complete their daily tasks safely.
“You can’t expect the person with dementia to change and adapt to you. You’re the one that has to change and adapt to them. That’s a big paradigm shift,” said Copeland. “A lot of times we expect people with dementia to live up to our standards or meet our expectations. Well, that doesn’t happen anymore when people have dementia.”
Copeland says you can improve communication with the person you’re caring for by meeting them at their level of cognition. Some specific tactics for doing that include:
- Making eye contact
- Giving them tactical and visual cues
- Using their name
- Avoiding the use of pronouns
Patience is also key to communicating effectively with someone who has dementia so you can keep him or her safe in their daily life.
“Their mental processing is slower because of dementia, so you have to give that person enough time to hear you, and give them enough time to respond to you,” said Copeland.
Another often overlooked element of dementia safety is ensuring they have all the tools they need to operate at their highest level physically. That includes making sure they’re wearing eyeglasses, hearing aids, dentures, or whatever other assistive devices they use.
“We want them to have their best level of function,” said Copeland.
Besides these less obvious approaches to dementia safety, there are also practical, common-sense ways to make a person with dementia’s environment safer. For example, you’ll want to make sure walking paths are clear of clutter and that there is plenty of space to maneuver between furniture.
You’ll also want to ensure cords and wires are taped to the wall, rugs are secured to the floor with double-sided tape and that the person you’re caring for is wearing good shoes to avoid tripping or slipping.
In the end, Copeland says dementia safety is about creating a safe, clean environment that sets the person you’re caring for up for success, and then meeting them where they are cognitively to help them live a safe and healthy life in that environment. And since someone with dementia is constantly changing cognitively, your role as the caregiver who keeps them safe will change as well.
“You’re going to figure out the activities that they have to do, and then you’re going to adapt and change to meet them where they are,” said Copeland. “And everyone’s different. And everyone’s different on different days.”