Looking after someone with dementia

Caring for someone with dementia can be challenging and stressful. But with the right support, it can be rewarding and often satisfying.

Support for you as a carer

You may not think of yourself as a carer, particularly if the person with dementia is a partner, parent or close friend.

But both you and the person with dementia will need support to cope with the symptoms and changes in behaviour.

It's a good idea to:

Find out about local support groups

Get a carer's assessment

If you care for someone, you can have an assessment to see what might help make your life easier. This is called a carer's assessment.

A carer's assessment might recommend things like:

  • someone to take over caring so you can take a break
  • training in how to lift safely
  • help with housework and shopping
  • putting you in touch with local support groups so you have people to talk to

A carer's assessment is free and anyone over 18 can ask for one.

Find out more about carer's assessments and how to get one

Helping someone with everyday tasks

In the early stages of dementia, many people are able to enjoy life in the same way as before their diagnosis.

But as symptoms get worse, the person may feel anxious, stressed and scared at not being able to remember things, follow conversations or concentrate.

It's important to support the person to maintain skills, abilities and an active social life. This can also help how they feel about themselves.

How you can help

Let the person help with everyday tasks, such as:

  • shopping
  • laying the table
  • gardening
  • taking the dog for a walk

Memory aids used around the home can help the person remember where things are.

For example, you could put labels and signs on cupboards, drawers and doors.

Find out more about how to make your home dementia-friendly

As dementia affects the way a person communicates, you'll probably find you have to change the way you talk to and listen to the person you care for.

Read more about communicating with someone with dementia.

Help with eating and drinking

Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet is an important part of a healthy lifestyle for everyone.

People with dementia may not drink enough because they don't realise they're thirsty.

This puts them at risk of:

These can lead to increased confusion and make the symptoms of dementia worse.

Common food-related problems include:

  • not recognising foods
  • forgetting what food and drink they like
  • refusing or spitting out food
  • asking for strange food combinations

These behaviours can be due to a range of reasons, such as confusion, pain in the mouth caused by sore gums or ill-fitting dentures, or difficulty swallowing.

How you can help

Try to remember that the person isn't being deliberately awkward. Involve the person in preparing the meal if they're able to.

Try these tips to make meal times less stressful:

  • set aside enough time for meals
  • offer food you know they like in smaller portions
  • be prepared for changes in food tastes – try stronger flavours or sweeter foods
  • provide finger foods if the person struggles with cutlery
  • offer fluids in a clear glass or coloured cup that's easy to hold

Make sure the person you care for has regular dental check-ups to help treat any causes of discomfort or pain in the mouth.

Alzheimer's Society has a useful factsheet on eating and drinking.

Help with incontinence and using the toilet

People with dementia may often experience problems with going to the toilet.

Both urinary incontinence and bowel incontinence can be difficult to deal with. It can also be very upsetting for the person you care for and for you.

Problems can be caused by:

  • urinary tract infections (UTIs)
  • constipation, which can cause added pressure on the bladder
  • some medicines

Sometimes the person with dementia may simply forget they need the toilet or where the toilet is.

How you can help

Although it may be hard, it's important to be understanding about toilet problems. Try to retain a sense of humour, if appropriate, and remember it's not the person's fault.

You may also want to try these tips:

  • put a sign on the toilet door – pictures and words work well
  • keep the toilet door open and keep a light on at night, or consider sensor lights
  • look for signs that the person may need the toilet, such as fidgeting or standing up or down
  • try to keep the person active – a daily walk helps with regular bowel movements
  • try to make going to the toilet part of a regular daily routine

If you're still having problems with incontinence, ask your GP to refer the person to a continence adviser, who can advise on things like waterproof bedding or incontinence pads.

Find out more information on toilet problems from Alzheimer's Society

Help with washing and bathing

Some people with dementia can become anxious about personal hygiene and may need help with washing.

They may worry about:

  • bath water being too deep
  • noisy rush of water from an overhead shower
  • fear of falling
  • being embarrassed at getting undressed in front of someone else, even their partner

How you can help

Washing is a personal, private activity, so try to be sensitive and respect the person's dignity.

Try these tips:

  • ask the person how they'd prefer to be helped
  • reassure the person you won't let them get hurt
  • use a bath seat or handheld shower
  • use shampoo, shower gel or soap the person prefers
  • be prepared to stay with the person if they don't want you to leave them alone

Alzheimer's Society has more tips in their factsheet on washing and bathing

Sleep problems

Dementia can affect people's sleep patterns and cause problems with a person's "body clock".

People with dementia may get up repeatedly during the night and be disorientated when they do so. They may try to get dressed as they're not aware it's night-time.

How you can help

Sleep disturbance may be a stage of dementia that'll settle over time.

In the meantime, try these tips:

  • put a dementia-friendly clock by the bed that shows whether it's night or day
  • make sure the person has plenty of daylight and physical activity during the day
  • cut out caffeine and alcohol in the evenings
  • make sure the bedroom is comfortable and either have a night light or blackout blinds
  • limit daytime naps if possible

If sleep problems continue, talk to your GP or community nurse for advice.

Find out more about sleep problems from Alzheimer's Society

Looking after yourself

Caring for a partner, relative or close friend with dementia is demanding and can be stressful.

It's important to remember that your needs as a carer are as important as the person you're caring for.

Ask for help

Family and friends can help in a variety of ways, from giving you a break, even if it's for only an hour, to taking the person with dementia to an activity or memory café.

Charities and voluntary organisations provide valuable support and advice on their websites and via their helplines:

Talk to other carers

Sharing your experiences with other carers can be a great support as they understand what you're going through. You can also share tips and advice.

If it's difficult for you to be able to attend regular carers groups, join one of the online forums:

If you're struggling to cope

Carers often find it difficult to talk about the stress involved with caring. If you feel like you're not managing, don't feel guilty. There's help and support available.

You may benefit from counselling or another talking therapy, which may be available online.

Talk to your GP or if you prefer, you can refer yourself directly to a psychological therapies service.

Find out more about talking therapies

Take a break from caring

Taking regular breaks can help you to look after yourself and better support you in caring for someone with dementia.

Family and friends may be able to provide short breaks for you to have time "just for you".

Other options include:

  • day centres – social services or your local carers' centre should provide details of these in your area
  • respite care – this can be provided in your own home or for a short break in a care home

Find out more about respite care

Dementia research

There are dozens of dementia research projects going on around the world, and many of these are based in the UK.

Much of the research is aimed at understanding the causes of dementia and developing new treatments.

But there's increasing recognition of the role of carers in helping someone stay independent with dementia and what their needs are.

You can sign up to take part in trials on the NHS Join Dementia Research website.

Page last reviewed: 04/10/2018
Next review due: 04/10/2021