Can Caregivers Help Slow Dementia?

Wouldn’t it be incredible if you, the family caregiver, could help affect the cognitive and functional progression of dementia in someone you love? A new study from Utah State University, published in January in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, suggests it might be possible.

Researchers from Utah State and Johns Hopkins University, through National Institute on Aging funding, assessed 226 people with dementia and their caregivers twice a year for six years. Their goal was to measure the genetic and environmental factors that could affect the rate of progression of dementia.

Care recipients were given short exams to measure their cognitive ability, including attention, memory, language and orientation to time, date and place. In non-academic speak, research showed that caregivers who used coping strategies, specifically a problem-focused approach (i.e. problem solving), saw a slower rate of decline in those with dementia than those who reported using this strategy less. The more they used these approaches, the better the results for the person with dementia.

Good social support and counting blessings were also found to be helpful. Counting blessings means changing how you look at a situation and focusing on the positive rather than trying to tackle the problem itself. (“I may have had to miss a wedding to care for Mom, but many families would have to put their parent in a nursing home. I’m grateful we can still care for her at home.”)

Pay attention, caregivers: Lead author and Utah State professor JoAnn Tschanz believes positive coping strategies can also lead to less caregiver stress. “The study is significant because it hints at the importance of environmental factors,” says Tschanz. “From our findings we hope to develop interventions and caregiver strategies. The care environment potentially can be modified to meet new challenges as the dementia progresses.”

Tschanz offers these strategies for caregivers:

  1. Try to avoid arguing or correcting the one with dementia. The disease may limit his or her ability to see things from another point of view.
  2. The care recipient’s abilities may vary depending on if he or she is having a good or bad day. It’s doesn’t mean the person isn’t trying. See if you can figure out if there are patterns to bad days (too much stimulation, too little sleep) to identify trigger behaviors.
  3. Don’t feel guilty about taking time for yourself – you need it!
  4. Take action! Research how the dementia may progress and when to get professional help from such resources as national Alzheimer’s organizations, your local Area Agency on Aging, the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute on Aging or a support group. Don’t wait until you’re in the thick of it.


Take a look at the post of  fellow AARP blogger Amy Goyer discussing how she deals with her dad who has dementia.

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