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In Australia, as of 2023, there are more than 400,000 people living with dementia. By 2058, this number is expected to increase to more than 800,000.
Janine and Jennifer, independent support workers on Mable, have extensive experience in dementia support.
Janine offers social support for her clients, while Jennifer, who is an Enrolled Nurse, offers personal care and social support.
For Dementia Awareness Month 2022, we asked them to share valuable advice for support workers working with clients with dementia.
What are the most important skills for supporting a person with dementia?
Janine: Patience and compassion. They can sometimes be unpredictable. It’s hard to know how they may be feeling on a particular day or whether they even remember you. But you have to respect how they feel and work around that.
Jennifer: Patience is key. Even trying to get a client to have a shower can be a challenge so you have to be patient, but you might also have to be creative in how you handle it.
Challenges in dementia support
Janine: Anger could flare up at any time during a support session. But it’s not personal. You have to take yourself out of the equation. You need to sit down and talk them through it.
Take things slow and go at their pace. If you’re outdoors, take the client somewhere they can sit down and relax.
Jennifer: It’s helpful to remember each person is different. When the person complains ‘you’re just trying to take away my independence’, it can feel natural to take it personally.
But remember, you’re there to help and do what’s best for the client’s wellbeing. They may have had a really bad night’s sleep, they may have forgotten to eat, they might just not feel happy.
You are there to facilitate helping them feel better and looking after their health and wellbeing.
Helping a client reach their goals
Janine: Helping clients work towards their goals is a cornerstone of support work, but for clients with dementia, goals can often be short-term. I have one client who wanted to do up his lounge room the way we wanted. We managed to get it done, but he needed guidance along the way.
Family members don’t perceive the care as goal-oriented. They want their loved one to get through a day with as little discomfort as possible.
Jennifer: The situations are short-term. It’s best to ask the client or their family what they’d like to achieve in the day’s session.
Maybe they want to get some fresh air. Maybe the family member wants me to make sure they finish their meal. I have lots of strategies for that. I’ll serve them one item at a time, keeping their dessert and cup of tea for later.
I’ll give them small portions, maybe serve their soup in a cup instead of a bowl. I’ll keep the client engaged and distracted, and have a chat while helping them eat.
Tips to support a person with dementia
- Don’t just turn up and say ‘We are going shopping, get dressed’. They may be trying to remember who you are, why you’re there. Keep an extra 15 minutes at the start of the session to greet them, get settled, and then talk about what’s happening that day.
- Avoid going to new places if the person doesn’t cope well with change. Familiarity is always better because there’s less emotional overload.
- Don’t try to do too many activities. Choose one low-key activity and stick to it. The client needs to maintain control, and you have to go with that.
- Never force anyone to do anything.
- Give feedback to the family when needed. Understand it’s very emotional for the family to see their parent like this. It’s important to communicate so everyone’s on the same page.
- Don’t remind a client they have told you the same story before. It’s rude and upsetting. Don’t remind a person they have dementia.
- Include the person in meet and greet conversations.
- Notice how they are in the moment – are they confused, chewing differently or just different than usual?
- Ask questions and listen to the client, sit at eye level.
- For challenging tasks like undressing or showering, try to engage them in a chat while guiding them.
- Plan outings where it’s not crowded to avoid the ‘sundowner’ effect, which involves late-day confusion and can cause anxiety and aggression. Go to places where you can leave easily on short notice.
- Make sure the destination has facilities such as disabled toilets and parking.
- Never raise your voice in anger or laugh at them.
- Keep a notebook for family and support workers to note how the client’s day was. That way, the next person can pick up where they left off.
Maintaining dignity in dementia support
Janine: In my experience, the person may sometimes feel they’re a burden. So I phrase things in a way that doesn’t make them feel that way. I may notice their clothes are dirty, so I’ll gently encourage them to change. They can feel empowered to do it themselves, but they may not have registered that they need to do it in the first place.
Jennifer: Dignity should be top of mind, not just for the person but their family too. You can do this by helping the family understand dementia. I also remind clients I’m a nurse so they feel comfortable receiving personal care.
When out in public, you have to be the buffer between the person and the public. Be ready to handle a situation calmly and proactively. If you are providing dementia support or plan to, we hope these guidelines from Janine and Jennifer were helpful for you. You can also explore other resources such as the Mable Dementia Topic Library and Dementia Australia to learn more.
If you are providing dementia support or plan to, we hope these guidelines from Janine and Jennifer were helpful for you. You can also explore other resources such as the Mable Dementia Topic Library and Dementia Australia to learn more.