Dementia can bring many challenges, both for the person with the diagnosis and for those close to them.
Sadly, many people with dementia tell us that friends and even family drift away after their diagnosis. People can find it difficult to know how to react when they hear the news that a friend has dementia.
Here are some hints and tips on supporting a friend with dementia.
My friend has just been diagnosed
A diagnosis of dementia can turn someone’s world upside down. They (or the people closest to them) might have known something was wrong for a while. But hearing the words can change everything.
Friendship becomes more important than ever.
Your friend might have problems with their memory, or become easily disoriented. Some types of dementia can cause problems with vision or language. The person may be upset or even angry after their diagnosis (or refuse to accept it) and could be worried about people treating them differently.
What you can do to help
1. Stay in touch! People with dementia can become isolated very quickly, as friends and family can feel uncomfortable talking about it
2. Find out more about dementia and how it’s likely to affect their everyday life. This will help you to support your friend and make you more prepared for changes in the months and years ahead
3. It can be very hard to cope with a diagnosis of dementia and people can respond very differently: fear, anger, grief and denial are all common. Be as understanding and patient as you can
4. Your friend might make mistakes or get mixed up if they have problem with their memory. Don’t take it personally
5. Don’t put pressure on your friend or the friendship to stay exactly the same. Memory problems, increased tiredness, confusion and the stress of adapting to dementia means that your friend will have ‘off’ days
6. Support your friend to stay independent for as long as possible. You don’t need to do everything for them (which is the last thing most people with dementia want), but you can help them to keep doing activities they enjoy. This is particularly important if your friend is no longer able to drive or use public transport unaided
7. The most important way you can help is just to be a good friend.
My friend has had dementia for some time
Everyone’s experience with dementia is different. Your friend’s experience will vary depending on the type of dementia they have, how quickly it was diagnosed and many other factors. As the condition progresses, it can also be helpful to talk to your friend’s partner, carer(s), or family about how best to maintain your friendship.
Your friend may need more support day-to-day. They might struggle to remember people’s names or confuse them with others. As the condition progresses, they might need repeated reminders (and help) to do simple tasks.
What you can do to help
1. Staying friends and keeping in regular contact can help maintain a person with dementia’s sense of identity and self-esteem
2. Using photos, music and other meaningful things to reminisce together, to help your friend remember shared experiences
3. Accepting the person your friend is now; try not to draw comparisons with how they were before developing dementia
4. Continue to include your friend in social activities for as long as possible
5. Make sure to talk directly to your friend, especially in social situations. Don’t talk past them or assume they are not listening or do not understand
6. Using gentle physical contact, such as linking arms or having a hug, can be very comforting for people with dementia
7. If your friend is being cared for, try to support the person who provides care for your friend too: it might be their spouse/partner, grown-up children or another relative. Spending time with your friend while their carer can go to the shops or meet their own friends can make a huge difference.
My friend’s dementia is very advanced
As your friend’s dementia becomes advanced, or if they are approaching the end of life with dementia, you may feel there is very little you can do. However, there are still lots of ways you can be a good friend.
Memory loss may mean the person no longer recognises even the people closest to them or previously treasured possessions. They may become much weaker physically and struggle to eat unassisted or to talk.
What you can do to help
1. Continue to spend time with them; your friend might not be aware that you’re there but they still appreciate the human contact – continue to reminisce with the person, even if they can’t communicate fully
2. Support their carer, particularly if your friend is still being cared for at home; a few hours of respite can make all of the difference
3. Be vigilant when spending time with the person; small signals and changes in body language can be a sign of pain or distress. Use your knowledge of the person to identify these signals
4. Visiting them following a move to a care home or hospital can help your friend to relax in what might be a stressful and frightening situation
5. Even after your friend has died, their spouse/partner and family might appreciate your support, especially your memories of the friendship.
If you have any questions about dementia or need to talk to someone, the Alzheimer Scotland Dementia Helpline provides information and emotional support to people with dementia, their families, friends and professionals. It’s a Freephone number and our team is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call on 0808 808 3000 or email [email protected]