Anxiety can affect as many as three out of four people with dementia. Fortunately, there are strategies that caregivers can use to help calm their loved ones. Not all will work in every circumstance, or with every individual, so patience and a trial-and-error approach may be best.
Assess Your Loved One’s Behavior
Begin by assessing which factors seem to cause anxiety in your loved one. Your own observations, together with discussions with your loved one, can yield important clues as to what relaxation techniques might be the most beneficial.
For example, you might ask:
- Are loud noises upsetting?
- Is lack of sleep contributing to anxiety?
- Is there a particular part of the day’s routine, or an activity, that is prone to causing anxiety?
Ideas to Help Calm People with Dementia
Controlled deep breathing is a simple exercise that helps promote calmness. It may also be effective for people living with dementia
By fully expanding the diaphragm, deep breathing allows oxygenated air to fill the lungs completely, prompting a relaxation response in the brain. By contrast, shallow “chest breathing” is associated with the release of stress hormones.
There are many breathing techniques, but you can start simple to achieve results.
In a quiet environment, encourage your loved one to take a slow, deep breath through the nose. This causes not only the chest but the belly to expand. Hold that position for a second or two, and then slowly exhale through the nose or mouth. Repeat the process for several minutes until he or she appears to be in a more relaxed state.
Try to make this exercise a regular feature of each day, or whenever it seems necessary. As a caregiver, you may even benefit from practicing controlled breathing yourself.
Gentle Physical Exercise
Gentle, low-impact exercises, such as walking, dancing, and stretching, can help relax the body and mind of people in the early to middle stages of dementia. An added bonus, you and your loved one may enjoy them together.
In addition to the calming effects of exercise, the potential benefits include improvements in balance and participation in a social activity, which may help your loved one feel less isolated by his or her condition.
Many private and non-profit organizations offer classes for people with limited mobility. However, check with your loved one’s doctor before engaging in a new exercise program.
Spend Time Outdoors
When weather permits, take a relaxing walk outdoors together. Exposing your loved one to an outdoor environment can break up the routine of the day and may take your loved one’s mind off his or her sources of anxiety.
Tending a garden is another out-of-the-house activity worth considering, as it can offer fresh air along with a sense of accomplishment.
Listen to Music
Since the areas of the brain that are associated with musical memories are typically less affected by Alzheimer’s disease, music can be a powerful tool to help your loved one relax.
According to the Mayo Clinic, music can also:
- Reduce stress
- Encourage communication
- Adjust your loved one’s mood
Make Things Accessible
Not being able to locate objects can be a source of anxiety for your loved one.
Keep his or her possessions, such as grooming, hygienic, and clothing items needed each day, well organized and within easy reach. If it seems advisable, remind your loved one of their locations frequently.
Adjust the Environment
Light, noise, and even cooking smells can impact your loved one’s ability to relax.
Be sure that indoor light levels are adequate for good vision in the daytime and appropriate for sleeping at night. Use low-wattage night lights to allow for safe trips to the bathroom.
If street traffic noise is a problem at night, consider a sleep machine that provides white noise or pleasant sounds. You can also find apps online and for your phone that create soft background noise.
As for scents, are there dishes whose aromas stir pleasant memories for your loved one? If so, use them to help calm your loved one, when feasible. Aromatherapy can be another way to create a calming environment.
Exercise the Brain
Cognitive exercises, such as playing cards, engaging in active discussions, and doing crossword puzzles and brain games, can help keep the brain active.
Remember to match the type of brain exercise to your loved one’s abilities. A challenge can be beneficial from time to time, but not in a situation where it can cause frustration.
Additional Tips for Caregivers
Above all, be aware of the factors that tend to trigger or worsen anxiety in your loved one, and do your best to avoid or mitigate them.
Dementia does not remove the need for an individual to feel purposeful and successful. By removing barriers and preparing for each part of your loved one’s daily ritual, you can help set the stage for success.
Find more tips for caregivers in our free resource, A Caregiver’s Guide to
Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia. This guide includes more than 20 pages of information to help you care for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.