Caring for someone with dementia at home


Expert Reviewer Dr Rahul Bhattacharya, Consultant Psychiatrist
Next review due January 2023

Small changes around your home could make life safer and easier for a person living with dementia. If you’re caring for a loved one, this page has tips about creating a dementia-friendly home and helping them with everyday routines such as washing and dressing.

Making your home dementia-friendly

Relatively small changes can make moving around easier for people with dementia. The aim is to create an area that is bright, friendly and easy to manage. People with dementia benefit from having activity around them, so their main seating area should be in the heart of the home if possible.

Lighting

Lighting is very important. Well-lit rooms help people to move freely without bumping into furniture. Do bear in mind though that if a room is too bright, this can cause restlessness.

Keeping hallway and bathroom lights on will help the person find their way to the toilet during the night. A night-light next to the bed will help them find their way back again. Make sure stairwells are lit too.

You can buy automated lighting systems that sense movement and switch lights on and off, but it’s worth trying cheaper options first.

Using signs

Signs can be helpful. Just bear in mind that too many might be more confusing.

You can buy signs to help your loved one find their way around their home. For example, the sign for the toilet may have the appropriate word together with a drawing of a loo. Or you can make signs yourself, have them laminated and stick them to doors or walls. Pictures of what’s inside kitchen cupboards can be helpful. Go for simple drawings – for example a cup – rather than a photo of the whole inside of the cupboard, which may be confusing.

Colours and patterns

People with dementia find contrasting colours easier to see. But patterns can make things more difficult. They may think a patterned carpet is uneven and try to avoid it, increasing risk of falls. Doors and door frames in contrasting colours will make moving around easier. A toilet seat in a contrasting colour can make using the loo easier too.

Avoiding falls

Many older people are at risk of falls. A person with dementia can’t always make sense of what’s around them. Not seeing things as they really are can increase risk of accidents. Here are some tips for making life less accident-prone.

  • Get rid of clutter, particularly on the floor.
  • Fix down loose rugs and carpet edges.
  • Move electric cords out of the way or tack them down.
  • Use non-slip flooring and wipe up spills, particularly in the kitchen and bathroom.
  • Keep items used regularly within easy reach.
  • Make sure footwear fits properly – loose, flapping or backless slippers can be dangerous.

For ease of moving around, there should be clear routes through the house, between the living room and kitchen, or bedroom and bathroom, for example. You may need to move furniture, but try not to completely rearrange familiar rooms as this could be confusing.

As people with dementia find it easier to see contrasting colours, painting or taping a bright colour on the edges of the stairs can make them clearer to make out.

There may be places where ramps or grabrails would help. During a home visit, an occupational therapist can advise on adaptations to improve safety for your loved one. If they agree that adaptations are needed, they can arrange fitting. Contact them through your GP.

Dressing

If your loved one with dementia needs help getting dressed, try to involve them as much as possible, including listening to what they would like to wear. This can help them to keep a sense of identity and dignity. The following steps may also help.

  • Establish a regular time of day for getting dressed. Having a routine can be comforting for people with dementia. Leave enough time so neither of you feel rushed or stressed.
  • Try labelling drawers and cupboards with names or pictures of the clothes inside them.
  • Lay clothes out in the order that they should be put on, starting with underwear and ending with a top.
  • Offer simple choices. For example, ‘Would you like to wear the red jumper?’ rather than ‘What would you like to wear?’
  • Find a way to deal with mistakes. For example, you may be able to laugh together if clothes are put on inside out.
  • It may be helpful to change the fastenings on your loved one’s clothes from buttons and zips to Velcro or elastic.
  • Think about treating them to a trip to the hairdressers or beauty salon (or having a hairdresser or manicurist to visit at home, if easier).

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Washing

If you’re helping a loved one with dementia to wash, being sensitive and protecting their privacy and dignity are important. It may be a big change for both of you to adjust to. Here are some tips that may help.

  • Have everything you need ready before you start.
  • Involve your loved one in decisions, such as having a bath or shower, or which soap to use.
  • Check that the floor isn’t wet so that neither you nor your loved one slips and make sure that the room is warm before they undress.
  • Support your loved one in doing as much as they can, such as drying themselves.
  • Make sure you explain everything you’re doing while helping your loved one.
  • For washing hair, a hand-held shower may be helpful, or you may want to rinse their hair in the sink.
  • Check that the water temperature isn’t too hot or too cold.
  • Thoroughly dry your loved one after washing, paying special attention to skin folds. This can help to prevent skin from becoming chafed. Check for any sore or red areas on their skin while they’re undressed.

Bathroom safety

Getting in and out of the bath can be particularly troublesome for people with dementia. There are a variety of aids that help with this, such as bath boards or bath seats. You can buy these or get them from occupational therapy. They can also arrange for a grabrail on the wall to help in getting out of the bath. Simple electrical devices to lower people into the bath can be fairly easily installed, but can be costly. A separate shower may be safer than bathing, particularly if there is room for a plastic chair to sit on while showering.

Contrasting colours for towels, soap, toilet paper and grabrails are easier to see, and will help to orientate someone with dementia using the bathroom. Similarly, for crockery and cutlery in the kitchen.

Anything potentially poisonous should be hidden away, including cleaning products, bleach and medicines. A lockable medicine cupboard may be helpful. Lastly, it might be safer to remove or disable the bathroom door lock if there is any chance of someone getting locked in, particularly if they live alone.

Eating and drinking

Your loved one's eating habits could change as the dementia progresses. They may find it harder to use cutlery, struggle with coordination, become restless or find it hard to communicate hunger or thirst.

Try to encourage your loved one to eat independently for as long as possible. Finger foods can be a great way to do this. They can also be carried around if your loved one finds it hard to stay sitting down during meals.

Think about adapting cutlery to make it easier to use; for example, adding grips. Non-slip placemats, and plates and bowls with higher sides, could help to avoid spills.

Visual or sensory clues might help your loved one to recognise that it’s time to eat. For example, putting colourful salt and pepper pots on the table, or letting your loved one smell what you’re cooking. It may help to engage them if you get them involved in preparing and cooking the food.

Eating and drinking well are important parts of staying healthy.

Kitchen safety

Keep cleaning products out of reach. You may need to keep sharp knives out of the way too. Check use-by dates on foods in the fridge regularly and throw out anything that may have gone off.

If there’s a risk of the oven or hob being left on, you can fit a master switch so you can turn it off when you aren’t around to supervise. Or you can have an isolation valve fitted that switches off the gas automatically. Your utility company can give you more information. Other devices can turn off a tap that has been left running. Gadgets like these can make providing dementia care much easier, so they may be worth the cost. Do make sure you have carbon monoxide detectors, a heat alarm in the kitchen and smoke alarms and that they are all working. Your local fire service should offer free home safety checks. If you qualify, they can supply and fit free smoke alarms, as well as advising on electrical and smoking safety.

Using the toilet

People living with dementia may need help with finding and using the toilet, or have trouble communicating when they need to use it. Needing this support may be embarrassing or upsetting for your loved one – and for you too. This is natural but don’t let it put you off telling family members or health professionals about the help you’re giving. They may be able to offer you extra support or advice.

It can help to look out for clues that the person you care for needs the toilet. These clues may be unique to them as individuals. For example, they might pull at their clothing or make a particular sound. It can also help to look out for patterns in how often they might need the toilet. They might, for example, regularly need to use the toilet half an hour after breakfast.

Keeping the toilet door open, or using a decoration to make the toilet door distinct from other doors around it, may help the person with dementia to find it.

The person may need help with one part of going to the toilet, but not others. For example, they might forget what to do with the toilet paper once they have used it.

Working out which parts of the process they’re having trouble with can help you know when to step in and help, and when you can leave the person in privacy.

To make getting on and off the toilet easier, consider installing handrails or a raised seat. If the toilet is upstairs or difficult to get to, think about getting a commode. Your GP may be able to refer to social services, who may provide aids, equipment and advice.

Incontinence

Particularly as dementia becomes more advanced, a person with dementia may lose control of their bowels or bladder (become incontinent).

Many shops sell continence pads, which may help to manage this. It's worth speaking to your GP about what else may help.

It’s also worth being aware that incontinence can be caused by other health problems. It can often be caused by constipation in people with dementia, and may also be caused by a bladder infection. Signs of a bladder infection can include increased confusion, unexpected incontinence or needing to use the toilet very frequently. Some medications for dementia may also cause incontinence as a side-effect.

In the garden and outside

People with dementia may find fresh air and time outside good for morale. If they like being in the garden, checking for any potential hazards is time well spent. Here are some tips.

  • Uneven paths or steps increase risk of falling for people with dementia, particularly loose paving stones, so keep them in good order.
  • Remove poisonous plants, just in case.
  • Put fences around ponds or streams, or cover them with netting.
  • If they are likely to walk off alone, make sure they have some sort of identification, such as a bracelet or a label in clothing or pocket.

Help from technology

There is an ever-increasing array of technology to help in providing support and care for people with dementia. Here are some examples.

  • Apps are available for your mobile phone or tablet – one example is the Jointly App by Carers UK. You can use it to keep notes, track medication and communicate with other people who are looking after your loved one.
  • There are alarm systems that people living alone can wear. Some have a button they press if they need help. Others automatically detect if the person has fallen. You can get information about these from your local Social Services department.
  • Motion sensors installed in the home can trigger voice messages as reminders, or make lights go on or off.
  • A telephone with large buttons that can be pre-programmed can make it easier for someone with dementia to contact others. You can put a picture of the person on each button.

There are many other devices and living aids available to make life easier for dementia carers. You can get more information from your local occupational therapy department or team of Admiral Nurses.

The website AT Dementia is also a useful source of information about assistive technology.

As a carer, it’s worth remembering that you’re entitled to a carer’s assessment from your local council to assess your needs. This may lead to extra support.



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  • Reviewed by Liz Woolf, freelance health editor, and Graham Pembrey, Lead Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, January 2020
    Expert Reviewer Dr Rahul Bhattacharya, Consultant Psychiatrist
    Next review due January 2023

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