Anxiety can affect people with symptoms of dementia, especially in the early stages of the disease, as they first come to grips with their loss of memory and declining cognitive capabilities.
There is a lot that caregivers can do to help calm their loved ones. Not all of them 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 trigger anxiety in your loved one. Your own observations, together with gentle discussions with your loved one, can yield important clues as to how to adjust his or her environment to reduce levels of anxiety, as well as what relaxation techniques might be the most beneficial.
For example, you might ask:
- Are loud noises especially upsetting?
- Is lack of sleep exacerbating anxiety?
- Is there a particular part of the day’s routine, or an activity that is prone to setting off a panic attack?
The answers to basic questions like these can help you take effective action to make your loved one more relaxed and comfortable.
Ideas to Promote Relaxation for People with Dementia
Controlled deep breathing is a simple, effective exercise for promoting calmness. It may also be effective in people 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 starting simple is likely the best option for you and your loved one.
In a quiet environment, simply encourage him or her to inhale slowly and deeply through the nose, causing 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 seated exercises, can help relax the body and mind for 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 the exercises, 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 a pleasant outdoor environment can be a good diversion. It breaks 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 fine out-of-the-house activity worth considering, offering 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 undamaged 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
Pay attention to the songs which your loved one reacts positively to and play them regularly.
Make Things Accessible
Not being able to locate commonly used objects can be an extra source of anxiety or even panic 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, go over 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 ambient noise from street traffic is a problem at night, consider a sleep machine that provides white noise or pleasant sounds, such as light rainfall or waves on a beach. 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 guide to understanding Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.