I have been privileged to work with people with dementia on many of my placements as a student nurse, and each patient has taught me so many things. Many people struggle with knowing how they can care for patients with dementia, and often question whether what they are doing is “right”. The truth is, every person with dementia is different with different preferences and needs, but having an understanding of dementia itself as well as an understanding of the patient can make a world of difference.
So, what is dementia? As you may know, there are many different types and causes but the meaning of the word dementia is:
“a syndrome (a group of related symptoms) associated with an ongoing decline of brain function” (NHS, 2020).
The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease and may account for 60-70% of cases (WHO, 2019). Different types of dementia affect different parts of the brain, and therefore symptoms will vary between patients depending on what type of dementia they have and how advanced their condition is. (Alzheimer’s Society, 2020). Despite this, common symptoms can include memory loss, difficulty concentrating, struggling with familiar daily tasks, being confused about time and place, mood changes and struggling to follow a conversation or find the right word (NHS, 2020).
Coming into hospital can be very tough for someone with dementia and their family. No matter their reason for admission, being in hospital can be frightening, disorientating and can increase confusion to a level that is higher than usual. So, as healthcare professionals, there are a couple of things we can do to try and help.
The first important thing is being able to recognise when someone has dementia, and this could be through the Butterfly Scheme. This uses a butterfly symbol to help staff recognise that a patient has memory problems or dementia. Once it has been identified that a person has dementia, it is so important to get as much information as possible about the patient themselves such as their normal routines, any cultural or religious needs and communication needs. This information can be given through a leaflet called “This is me” produced by the Alzheimer’s Society which can be inserted into the patient’s notes to help all staff that come into contact with the patient. Anyone who is close to the patient and knows them well can fill out the leaflet, such as a friend, carer or family member. These leaflets can provide all the important information about the patient to help the staff tailor their care, for example the patient may not be able to cut up their food, but if they are helped with that they may be able to eat with a spoon (Alzheimer’s Society , 2020) Keeping their routine as normal for them as possible can help ease anxiety and therefore help the patient focus on recovery to be able to get back home.
Finding out all this information is a very important, however sometimes it can feel daunting trying to work out how to communicate with those with dementia. They may not understand what you are trying to say or what you want them to do which can feel frustrating. However, there are things you can do to enable you to communicate with people with dementia more effectively. Speaking slowly and clearly is a great place to start, alongside providing simple choices. Asking whether someone wants to do this or that can be very confusing for someone with dementia, so therefore asking one thing at a time can provoke a yes or no answer, making the process a lot simpler. Listening is also vital, and taking account of non-verbal messages through body language or facial expressions. Use eye contact when you are talking to the patient and try not to finish their sentences for them if they are struggling (NHS, 2020). Taking small steps like this can ease the process of caring for someone with dementia, making their experience in hospital less stressful.
By Emily Hawthorn – Second year student nurse (dual adult / child field), university of Southampton
Image by: Sara Illamas, (google image, 2020)