One of the most difficult times after a dementia diagnosis is when a patient begins to feel a loss of independence and control over their daily lives. Their sense of time is distorted, their short-term memory is impaired, and the world they once knew often looks strange, unfamiliar and frightening. As the disease progresses, it’s important for patients to keep a daily routine in order to help maintain a sense of control as they navigate the everyday activities that once seemed so simple.
The disease of dementia most often disrupts short-term memories, while keeping long-term memories largely intact until the later stages of the disease. In our brains, daily routines are stored with long-term memories, so familiar activities are usually immune to the fear and frustration that come from new experiences. A recognizable schedule also helps reduce the anxiety that is so common with cognitive and physical decline. Patients feel a sense of comfort in knowing what will come next and what the outcome of an activity will be.
Here are a few of the ways to help maintain a predictable daily routine.
1. As much as possible, keep small activities in the same order the patient is used to and comfortable with. This includes meals, taking medication, bathing, watching TV, getting dressed, talking on the phone, and reading the newspaper.
2. Encourage patients to participate in simple household chores like laundry and cleaning. Being involved helps patients feel a sense of self-worth, and an active brain helps them maintain their cognitive skills.
3. Keep up with physical exercise. Physical activity strengthens limbs and core muscles, increases flexibility, reduces anxiety, and improves overall mental health.
4. Make music a part of each day. Music can be a lifeline to the soothing feelings of familiarity that are so necessary for the physical and emotional well-being of dementia patients.
5. Find activities they enjoy and make them a part of each day. Activities that spark joy could include art projects, puzzles, knitting, gardening, tinkering, keeping up with sports scores, or anything else that has brought them pleasure over the years.
Life doesn’t always allow us to maintain rigid schedules, so flexibility is essential. But when a dementia patient is reassured by familiar, recognizable and comforting routines, their daily lives will be filled with less fear and more control.