Step One – Getting Our Head in the Game

By Elaine Poker-Yount, Conference Director and Aging & Dementia Care Specialist

Reach her at 480-203-8548 or

When asked, “What should I know now that my spouse/my Mom/my Dad has been diagnosed with dementia?”  Start with a few deep breaths and get your head in the right place.  Read what you can to understand some of the signs, symptoms, etc.  This will help you to recognize some of the daily happenings you will experience.  From there we need to shift our mindset.  Our lives are affected now too. The only thing constant is change – right?  Changes are coming.  We don’t know the speed at which they’ll hit.

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But our loved ones living with a diagnosis afflicting their brains are unable to change on a dime.  It will take them longer to process.  And most certainly they are unable to change when they feel threatened.  “Threatened you ask? – I would never do that, you reply.”  Of course we don’t threaten someone on purpose.  It’s how we react when asked the same question for the 10th time in 20 minutes.  It’s when we say, “why are you putting on your shoes before your pants?” with an incredulous tone.  Or “I told you we needed to leave in 20 minutes, why aren’t you ready?”  When we ask questions our partner can’t answer at a given moment, they get anxious, confused, embarrassed, or scared because they don’t understand what’s going on.  When we’re in any of those states we don’t think or process clearly.  (The Mind and Mental Health: How Stress Affects the Brain by Rebecca Bernstein / 26 July 2016 / Published in Health and Human Services)

Dementia is brain failure.  It’s progressive.  It’s terminal.  (Time Magazine, October 14, 2009) So when we expect someone in brain failure to readily adapt to our expectations, we are setting ourselves and them up for failure.  We, as care givers/partners, must do the changing.  And the changing on our part means starting now and continuously keeping that mindset moving forward.

That means we need to respond to snags in the routine or the game plan, not react!  The best way to do this is to give yourself a ‘time out’ when a situation escalates or goes off plan and you’re feeling frustrated or angry.   Count to ten.  Step away.  Take those three solid, slow, deep breaths – in through the nose, out through the mouth.  Physiologically, you are making yourself feel better, which allows YOUR brain to function properly, so you can adjust your thinking proactively, not reactively.  Those three deep breaths function like a reset button.   Now, it’s possible to face the situation with a fresh approach that doesn’t point fingers or make anyone feel badly.  When anyone is stressed the brain isn’t functioning at full capacity, so we have to put ourselves in a position to be able to think clearly.

The next place we need to put ourselves in check is keeping our expectations in line with our care partner’s reality.  Pare down the list.  Keep the daily agenda small and realistic.  It’s ok to have a wish on there – something you’d be thrilled if it happened, just don’t expect it to happen.  Then remember to rejoice when it does!

Healthy people have ability to take in information, process it and respond appropriately.  Someone living with dementia may not be able to do that depending upon where they are in their journey.   It’s more common for them to simply react to situations. Emotions vs. logic will rule.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “We need to be the change we want to see in our world.”  That simple little phrase, with all its implications, is so powerful in this scenario because we can be the change.  We need to be the change.  And in order for everyone to have a lesser level of frustration as you travel this road of dementia, you MUST be change – because you can.  If you can wrap your mind around that part of your reality, you’ll set yourself up to be in a better place – for both of you.

Ok, take those three slow, deep breaths.  You can do this.

Wishing you the ability to see the opportunity of change…