Anxiety and panic attacks often afflict people with symptoms of dementia, especially in the early stages of the disease, as they first come to grips with the loss of memory and declining cognitive capabilities. Caregivers can help calm their loved ones with a number of time-tested relaxation techniques. Not all of them will work in every circumstance, or with every individual, so a caregiver may have to take a trial and error approach to determine what steps are most helpful in getting a loved one to relax.
Begin by making your own assessment as to what factors seem to trigger anxiety in your loved one. Your own careful powers of observation, together with gentle discussions with your loved one, can yield important clues as to how to adjust his or her environment to reduce levels of anxiety and to choose the most appropriate relaxation techniques. Are loud noises especially upsetting? Is lack of sleep exacerbating anxiety? Is there a particular part of the day’s routine, or an activity that is prone to setting off a panic attack? The answers to basic questions such as these can help you take effective action to make your loved one more relaxed and comfortable.
Here are some ideas to consider:
Breathing exercises. Controlled deep breathing is one of the most widely recommended exercises for promoting calmness among people with dementia. By fully expanding the diaphragm, deep breathing allows oxygenated air to fill the lungs completely, prompting a relaxation response in the brain. By contrast, shallow “chest breathing” is associated with the release of stress hormones. There are many controlled breathing techniques, suggested by various authorities, but for your loved one it will be important to take an uncomplicated approach. In a quiet environment, simply encourage him or her to inhale slowly and deeply through the nose, causing not only the chest but the belly to expand; hold that position for a second or two, and then slowly exhale through the nose or mouth. Repeat the process for several minutes until he or she appears to be in a more relaxed state. Try to make this exercise a regular feature of each day, or whenever it seems necessary. By the way, as a caregiver, you may well benefit from practicing controlled breathing on yourself.
Yoga or tai chi. Do not assume that yoga and tai chi are beyond the physical capabilities of your loved one. Both of these holistic disciplines, which coordinate mind and body, are practiced at various levels of difficulty, including introductory courses that offer relaxing meditation exercises that you and your loved one may enjoy together. In addition to the calming effects of the exercises, the potential benefits include improvements in balance and participation in a social activity, which may help your loved one feel less isolated by his or her condition. Many private and non-profit organizations offer classes for people with limited mobility. However, check with your loved one’s doctor before engaging in yoga or tai chi.
Spending time outdoors. When weather permits, take slow walks together. Exposing your loved one to a pleasant outdoor environment can be a relaxing form of diversion. It breaks up the routine of the day and may take your loved one’s mind off sources of anxiety. Tending a garden is another fine out-of-the-house activity worth considering, offering fresh air along with a sense of accomplishment.
Listening to music. Listening to different types of music can help set the tone for the day. It can help invigorate or act as a calming element for your loved one, when needed.
Making things accessible. Not being able to locate commonly used objects can be an extra source of anxiety, and even panic for your loved one. Keep his or her possessions, such as grooming, hygienic and clothing items needed each day, well organized and within easy reach. If it seems advisable, go over their locations frequently.
Adjusting the environment. Light, noise, even cooking smells can have an impact on your loved one’s ability to relax. Be sure that indoor light levels are adequate for good vision in the daytime and appropriate for sleeping at night, using low-wattage night lights to allow for safe trips to the bathroom. If ambient noise from street traffic is a problem at night, consider a sleep machine that provides white noise or pleasant sounds, such as light rainfall or waves on a beach. As for scents, are there dishes whose aromas stir pleasant memories for your loved one? If so, put them to use as a source of calm, when feasible.
Exercise the brain. Cognitive exercises, such as playing cards, engaging in active discussions, and doing crossword puzzles and computer generated brain games can help keep the brain active. It is helpful to match abilities with the type of brain exercise. A challenge can be beneficial from time to time, but not in a situation where it can cause frustration.
Above all, be well attuned to the factors that tend to trigger or worsen anxiety in your loved one, and do your best to avoid or mitigate them. Dementia does not take away the need for an individual to feel purposeful and successful. By removing barriers and prepping for each part of your loved one’s daily ritual, you can help set the stage for success.