How to help a spouse with dementia find purpose and meaning to life

At Forward From 50, we are all about helping people find purpose for their lives after they reach the 50-year mark. But what happens when those seasoned citizens go into cognitive decline.

That can be incredibly frustrating for everyone involved, including family, caregivers, spouses and the patient as well.

I have not had to deal first-hand with the effects of dementia myself. My father died when I was a child and my mother lived by herself until two weeks before she died. So I consider myself fortunate for being able to avoid the heartache and feelings associated with caring for a loved one with dementia.

But, I know a lot of people today find themselves in that role. So I was intrigued when I read a story published by Mid-Florida Newspapers titled “Finding a purpose as abilities decline.” It further opened my eyes to the frustration experienced by people living in that situation or impacted by it in some way.

The author provided some excellent practical advice, which I wanted to share and expand upon here.

The need to feel useful

First, it is important to remember that it is a sorrowful situation because the victim of dementia desperately wants to feel useful and needed. This would be especially true for men.

After all, they were actively involved in careers where they made important decisions or completed essential tasks. They may remember what that feeling of power and accomplishment was like. Comparing their current situation to that long-ago status would as confusing to them as it is frustrating for their families.

The article’s author, Karen Cochran Beaulieu, noted, “They sense that something is wrong and this causes them confusion and embarrassment. Their world has changed dramatically, and as mental abilities decline, they have little or no control over their lives. It all comes down to purpose.”

I remember how I felt when I didn’t see purpose to my life after my business shut down — and I still had access to all my physical abilities and mental processes. Not having a sense of purpose is debilitating.

Karen encouraged caregivers to take time to consider a purpose for the patient, whether big or small. However, it is essential that the task match the person’s abilities and personality. I imagine the patient may still be able to distinguish between important work and busy work, especially in the early stages of dementia.

Once you identify an acceptable purpose for the patient, Karen said it’s important to make that job a big deal.

“Tell them often how important and helpful they are. This is the time when encouragement, affection and praise will make a world of difference,” she wrote.

Karen recalls how happy her 99-year-old mother, who suffered from declining dementia, felt when asked to set the table. It was often the highlight of her mother’s day.

I know of a man suffering from dementia who likes to disassemble things around the house, then complains to his wife when they don’t work as he expects any more. Perhaps the key would be to find things he could disassemble and reassemble again without causing damage to important items.

A workbench or desk with access to a simple toolbox may be enough for him to tinker around. Just be sure doing the task won’t require access to fire, very sharp items or electricity, which could have unintended consequences.

Karen suggested involving the person in grooming a beloved pet or looking at picture books and magazines with younger children. Younger children are likely to love the extra attention and activity. They are also less likely to say things that will make the dementia patient feel bad about his or her condition.

Perhaps Karen’s best advice was directed at caregivers themselves. “Your personal purpose must be to take care of yourself. As much as possible, simplify your tasks, allow yourself to laugh, inventory things you enjoy and find ways to include them in your schedule. Your well-being depends on it!

In fact, that may be a good purpose for anyone over 50 to consider. Round-the-clock caretakers would likely appreciate a break, knowing their spouse is engaged in joyful, purposeful activity with someone they trust.

Medical News Today offered 30 tips regarding the best activities for someone with dementia.

The Alzheimer’s Association assemble a list of 50 activities as well.

The full story can be found at Mid-Florida Newspapers.