People with Dementia can still enjoy their later years and take active steps to lessen the effects of the condition with help urges cognitive neuroscientist and ageing specialist Dr Lynda Shaw.

Dementia is an age-related syndrome that affects nearly 600,000 people in the UK, and is now the most common disease in older adults.  Living with Dementia is very difficult for both those with the condition and their friends and families, but Dr Lynda Shaw believes it doesn’t have to spell the end of a happy and meaningful life.  She strongly upholds that there are steps you can take to help people with Dementia enjoy everyday activities and make the most of their later years, despite the condition:

“It is a common misconception that once Dementia has been diagnosed and begins to affect a person’s life, there is little that can be done to help the person.  Whilst Dementia can of course at times be frightening, confusing and upsetting for both the person with Dementia and their carers, many of those with even advanced Dementia can still take great enjoyment from life, and it is a huge mistake to think otherwise."

“As Dementia worsens this will obviously mean a lot of changes in life, and what the person can cope with will undoubtedly change over time.  Try varying activities to find what works and what doesn’t, and tailor things to an appropriate level of ability so the person doesn’t get frustrated.  Even simple pleasures such as a walk in the park or listening to music can help improve the quality of life of a person with Dementia, so stay flexible in your planning and be creative in thinking of activities the person will enjoy.  Most importantly, always focus on the positives.”

Dementia affects people differently and can have several causes, the most common form of Dementia is Alzheimer’s disease; its symptoms can affect memory, perception, understanding, judgement, emotions and even personality.  Dr Lynda Shaw admits that there is no standard formula for how to deal with Dementia, as it depends hugely on the individual and the stage of their condition, but advises carers to invest time in activities that the person once enjoyed, and incorporate socialisation into daily routine wherever possible.

“When dealing with severe Dementia, it’s often easy to focus on the condition and lose sight of the individual.  Whenever you see the person with Dementia treat them with respect and dignity to help them feel confident and valued, however advanced their Dementia may be.  Equally, it is important to communicate in a clear and reassuring way to help the person with Dementia feel at ease.  Even if the person doesn’t understand what you’re saying they may pick up on non-verbal communication, so ensure your tone is warm and that your body language is open and friendly to avoid unintentionally coming across as stressed or irritated.”

Furthermore, Dr Lynda Shaw urges there are active steps that people can take to slow the rate of mental decline from Dementia, and even to avoid succumbing to the illness altogether.  Most types of Dementia are degenerative, but some causes can be stopped or reversed if they are found soon enough, and Dr Shaw believes there are many things you can do to protect yourself;

“Spotting the early signs of Dementia is crucial to being able to reduce the rate of deterioration. With the right lifestyle and guidance, we can help those with Dementia in its early stages – and even those who aren’t – retain their independence and prolong their lives, and live as normally and happily as possible.”

Tips to improve your chances at keeping Dementia at bay:

  1. Keeping your brain active is the most important way to avoid succumbing to Dementia.  Challenge your brain daily with crosswords, sudokus, maths puzzles, or even a game of hangman, noughts and crosses or Pictionary with a friend
  2. Use your hands.  Gardening, knitting, writing a diary will help improve your coordination and boost brain activity – even practice writing with your other hand to exercise the opposite side of your brain to challenge yourself!
  3. Exercise regularly.  Even just 10-20 minutes of walking daily can reduce the risk of Dementia through improving cardiovascular health to maintain blood flow to the brain.  Not to mention the benefits of some fresh air and a change of scene!
  4. Keep socialising. Arrange a weekly coffee date or phone call with friend or family member, join a book club, take up a new hobby, or volunteer for a charity in your local area
  5. Control high blood pressure by maintaining a healthy, balanced diet, cutting back on alcohol intake and quitting smoking

Tips to help those with Dementia:

  1. Find out as much as you can about Dementia and how it is affecting the particular person involved.  That way when you talk to other family and friends about it, you are in the best position to be understanding and offer the right kind of support
  2. Let them and their family know you are there for them by making sure you stay in touch.  Arrange regular meet-ups or just pop round for a cup of tea and a chat – even a quick text or phone call to let the family know you’re thinking of them can make a huge difference
  3. Be a good listener – those supporting the person with Dementia often need someone to talk through things with, so ask thoughtful questions and listen carefully, and give them time to explore their feelings freely without judgment
  4. Organise a treat or outing to include the person with Dementia.  Think of an appropriate activity for everyone to do together, such as a walk in the park or a trip to the seaside, and give everybody a fun day out
  5. Offer practical tips for how to make life easier for the person with Dementia.  Small suggestions like placing useful telephone numbers by the phone or labeling cupboards and drawers can make a huge difference to daily life

Dr Lynda Shaw runs an advisory service for loved ones of those with dementia. Visit her website here.