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How Can a Dementia Caregiver Promote Independence and Self Care?

Posted Dec 02 2012 4:43pm
Using the skills they still possess not only preserves cognitive capacity but also gives a person living with Alzheimer's or dementia a sense of self-worth and independence.

By Monica Heltemes
Alzheimer's Reading Room


How Can a Dementia Caregiver Promote Independence and Self Care?
Individuals in the beginning stages of dementia maintain their ability to complete their own basic self-cares such as brushing their teeth, washing their face, combing their hair, and shaving for men.

As the person declines, however, they may start to forget one or more of these steps. It is often not that the person cannot do the particular task, but rather that they just forgot to do it.

Maintaining as much independence as possible with daily self-care tasks such as these, is important. It is the ‘use it or lose it’ concept.

If the person does not keep doing the things that he/she is capable of doing (with the right support) then those skills can be lost.

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So how can a caregiver help the person keep doing these basic self-care tasks?

Here are a few tips
  1. Keep needed items out, not in a drawer. For the person at this level of dementia, it is “out of sight, out of mind”. If they do not see the comb, they are more likely to forget to comb their hair.
  2. Minimize clutter in the sink/counter area. Take away all unnecessary items and leave only the basic tools needed, such as toothpaste and toothbrush, comb, and razor.
  3. Group like items together in containers or caddies. So the toothbrush and toothpaste can be placed together in a holder on the counter. The comb and hairspray can be together in another holder. The more cognitive limitations the person has, the fewer items you would want to have on the counter.
  4. Post a simple list of the tasks to be accomplished on the mirror. For example, “Brush teeth”, “Comb hair”.
  5. Place towels that are a contrasting color to the walls, in visual sight. So a dark navy towel could be used against a white wall or a white towel against a dark wall. You might leave the washcloth or towel on the countertop instead of off to the side on the towel bar, to keep it in their line of vision and as a cue to use it.
  6. Bars of soap tend to get used more than pump-style soaps, as it the style most older adults grew up with. Try to have only that style available on the counter.
  7. If these tips are alone not enough, the person might need step by step verbal and visual cues. For example, saying “Brush your teeth” while pointing to the toothbrush (that you have already put toothpaste onto) or when placing the toothbrush in their hand.

Basic self-cares such as these are activities for the person with Alzheimer’s. It is using skills that they still have, not only preserving cognitive capacity as long as possible but also giving the person a sense of self-worth and independence.

Side note from the author: I would love to hear in your comments if you find these practical tips valuable. As an occupational therapist, we are experts at breaking down activities so that they can be successful. There are a lot more tips that could be shared!



Monica Heltemes
Monica Heltemes is a practicing occupational therapist and owner of MindStart™. MindStart designs hobby-style items, such as games and puzzles, specifically for persons with memory loss. They keep persons with dementia active, while giving support to caregivers, and are quick and easy to use. Visit MindStart (Activities for Persons with Memory Loss) to learn more.
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Original content the Alzheimer's Reading Room
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