For most of us, a routine can be pleasant and especially useful to keep us grounded during a stressful time.

For those with dementia, routines are a key component of staying healthy. Typically, people with dementia have trouble forming new memories and learning new information. So, for them, routine and repetition are critical to function. While they can learn new things, it is very difficult and takes much longer.

A good routine includes consistent sleep and wake times, hygiene, meal times and key activities. The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted much of this. Disrupting the routines of those with dementia creates a lot of stress for someone who cannot track information. This may lead to an increase in confusion and memory issues. The good news is that this is most often temporary and can stabilize once people get back to a routine.

Many worry that if their loved one with dementia is exposed to prolonged stress, they can be pushed to the next stage of the disease.  Most evidence suggests this will not happen, and that changes are usually temporary.

Ways to help

If you are caring for someone with dementia right now, here’s what you can do to help them:

  • Try to stick to a routine as much as possible. With structure and routine, you can get information through and create an environment that is comforting with clear expectations.
  • Have a white board, or a calendar on the wall that includes a plan for the day.  You can alter these to reflect new activities that can happen safely right now.
  • Virtual communication is a valuable tool for both you and your loved one. There is a great deal of technology that can help to fight social isolation.  Some even allow a family member or caretaker to “drop in” and speak to their loved one via voice prompts.  You can learn more here
  • Don’t expose your loved one with dementia to too much negative information. While they might not remember the details of newscasts, they hold on to the emotional information. As a result, they may feel increased fear, anxiety and stress, but not understand why.
  • Manage stress by engaging your loved one with activities, hobbies or listening to music.
  • Since taking in new information is difficult, focus on reminiscing – talk about past events, trips, other activities that they’ve done.
  • Even someone with a significant memory disorder can still remember experiencing worry, fear and stress. They may sense it if is in the air or on television. Therefore, helping them to experience positive emotions is critical.

Caregivers need care too

For many caregivers, there was a sense of being able to “tag in” other family members to help care for a loved one. Time spent at senior or community centers can serve as a brief respite from the role of caregiver. However, many caregivers may have lost their support network because of stay-at-home orders.

It’s just as important to take care of yourself right now as it is for you to care for your loved one with dementia. Some things that might help:

  • Take a break.
  • Do a meditation or relaxation exercise.
  • Read a book or a magazine article.
  • Ask yourself – what is the next step? Try not to focus on more than one step at a time, it’s too overwhelming.
  • Reach out to your support network and to your friends and family via phone or video chat.
  • Talk to a professional. Help is a phone call away through our Access Center at 401-606-0606.
  • The Alzheimer’s Association has a 24/7 helpline you can call for help with many things, including decision-making support, crisis assistance or caregiver support.

Signs caregivers should watch for

In times of stress, someone with dementia may experience increased confusion or agitation, or may exhibit behavioral changes and act out of character. This is most often only temporary.

However, if you see some of the following behaviors, you should contact your care provider:

  • If someone is acting out of character, begins putting himself/herself or you in danger by wandering off or becoming physically aggressive.
  • If there are new areas of confusion or new types of behaviors that persist over the course of several days.  An example of this might be unexplained incontinence.  If someone has something to drink too close to bedtime, that might be considered normal.  But if it is happening often, at different times, it could be considered a new problem.

We understand these are difficult times, and for our loved ones experiencing memory disorders, it can be even more trying. Remember, we are all in this together. For more information on memory disorders and resources available to you, please visit our website.

Dr. Geoffrey Tremont, neuropsychologist.

Geoffrey Tremont, PhD

Dr. Geoffrey Tremont is a neuropsychologist with Lifespan Psychiatry and Behavioral Health and is also on the team at the Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders Center at Rhode Island Hospital.