Dementia and healthy living

The key to living well with dementia is staying healthy – physically and mentally. It is easier for someone with dementia to take on new challenges and lead a meaningful and positive life when they feel well. A good diet, exercise, sleeping well and being free of pain and infection are critical in maintaining good health and wellbeing.

Illness can have a dramatic impact on all of us, potentially affecting our ability to think and communicate and having to leave home to go to hospital. For someone with dementia, illness and the possibility of being admitted to hospital may cause great anxiety and stress and potentially affect their ability to remain in their own home.

If you can stand up and do it, do it. If you can’t, sit down and do it. And if you can’t, lay down and do it. The thing is that you do it.

A man with dementia from the Forget Me Not club in Swindon’s Walking Group

Health checks

Regular eye, hearing and dental checks are critical in maintaining good health and wellbeing and in avoiding unnecessary anxiety and stress in people with dementia. Poor eyesight can put someone at risk in their own home, poor hearing can increase communication difficulties and dental problems can result in a loss of appetite. A care worker can help encourage people with dementia to have regular checks by looking out for the following:

Poor eyesight: Trips and falls in the home are more likely if someone can’t see properly. Not being able to read information, books, newspapers or signs can increase confusion and frustration. The problem may be due to the person not wearing their glasses or needing an eye test and new glasses.

Poor hearing: If communication is a problem (say someone struggles to follow a conversation or has the TV on very loud) it may be because they have hearing difficulties. The problem may be due to the person not wearing their hearing aid or needing a hearing test and hearing aid.

Dental problems: Painful gums, toothache or poorly fitted dentures can lead to a person not drinking or eating. If they have difficulty talking, they may not be able to express discomfort while eating. A visit to the dentist will help resolve these issues.

Staying active

Enjoying life is crucial to the health and wellbeing of a person with dementia. This involves taking up or maintaining hobbies and interests (such as photography, walking, singing, playing instruments, knitting, crosswords, chess and other board games), doing things around the house and garden and attending and participating in social activities (for example going to the cinema, theatre and community events). Taking regular exercise (from scenic walks in the country to strolls through parks or streets of villages, towns and cities) helps to maintain mobility and stimulate the senses.

An initiative to enhance the quality of life of older people receiving care – ‘Make every moment count’ – has been launched by Scotland’s care regulator, the Care Inspectorate. It has worked with a team of experts to develop the resource, which is aimed at encouraging everyone who works in care to value the life of the person they are caring for. ‘Make every moment count’ highlights how making the most of every moment can make a real difference to a person’s quality of life in simple but very meaningful ways. The Care Inspectorate, in a video about the resource, says that ‘a key message is to rethink activity and see it as everything a person does, from the moment they get up in the morning to the moment they go to sleep at night’.

A care worker has an important role to play in encouraging and supporting a person with dementia to stay active in and outside their home. Daily activities can include involving a person with dementia to help with washing up and laundry chores, cleaning and vacuuming their home and spending time in their garden, allotment or similar outside space. It not only helps to keep them busy, it also engages their mind, giving them a sense of value and worth – important qualities to nurture after a diagnosis of dementia.

Helping or encouraging the person to create a life history book with family and friends (containing information and pictures that have helped to shape their lives, from family holidays to favourite places, jobs and best friends) can be invaluable. It provides a positive talking point and is particularly helpful when someone has difficulty communicating or remembering a partner, relative, friend or an important phase in their life.

For more information about staying active see the section focusing on Keeping active and occupied.

Eating and drinking well

Maintaining a healthy, balanced diet can be a challenge for many people with dementia. Some may eat too much – and of the wrong kind of foods – and some may forget to eat and drink, particularly as their dementia progresses. Missing out on essential nutrients will reduce a person’s resistance to illness and can cause or increase confusion.

The Scottish Care Inspectorate’s ‘Make every moment count’ resource (referred to above) emphasises the importance of treating everyday activities – including eating and having a cup of tea – as critical to a person’s wellbeing. ‘Thinking about activity in this way gives everyone the opportunity to improve the quality of life of the person being cared for,’ says the Care Inspectorate, which has developed the resource with a team of experts.

The section on Eating well for people with dementia (in particular the feature on Eating well at home) demonstrates that carers have a ‘vital role to play in supporting a person who lives at home to eat well’.

It suggests that they should:

Sleeping well

A good night’s sleep is essential to a person’s good health and wellbeing. Some people with dementia experience sleeping difficulties (for example, they may wake several times during the night because they think it is morning and time to get up).

A care worker may be able to help overcome this problem by:

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