Caring for Patients with Dementia as a Nurse

Caring for patients with dementia will become a significant part of nursing in the coming years. Dementia is a fast-growing disease in much of the world because developed countries are aging fast. The U.S. Census Bureau has projected that, by the year 2030, 20% of Americans will be over age 65, putting the number of seniors above the number of children living in the U.S. for the first time in history. And by the year 2050, the World Health Organization has predicted the number of people living with dementia around the world will top 135.5 million.

As professional medical caregivers and educators, nurses must provide services for the families of people with dementia as well as for the patients themselves. It is important for nurses to keep learning new ways to assist and communicate with patients living with dementia. People living with dementia will require skilled and compassionate nursing care. The following tips can help nurses know how to care for patients with dementia.

How to Care for Patients with Dementia as a Nurse

There are many ways nurses working with dementia patients can provide specialized care beyond distributing medicine. Below, we’ve identified a few ways you can go above and beyond while caring for patients with dementia.

  • Helping patients exercise. Like everyone else, patients with dementia need plenty of physical exercise, but it can make routine workouts dangerous. Nurses can work with patients to do safer, simpler activities, like gardening, dancing or going for walks. Many nursing professionals work with family members to set up appropriate exercises for people with dementia living at home. 
  • Socializing. Human contact becomes increasingly more important and yet more challenging for those living with dementia. Nurses can help patients create and sustain social relationships by assessing their capacity for and interest in various activities, communication skills and focus. People with dementia might participate in dinner by helping set the table, for example, or they may enjoy listening to music or playing board games. 
  • Encouraging independence. Almost everyone flourishes more fully when they can manage their own lives and bodies. People with dementia may need extra assistance, but nurses can offer help in ways that promote, rather than diminish, individual autonomy. Make sure your patient’s residence has plenty of directional signage pointing to the kitchen, the bedroom, the bathroom and the living room. You can also help patients perform their own self-care tasks, such as bathing, brushing their teeth and putting on their clothes, for as long as possible.
  • Supporting families of people with dementia. Spouses, children and grandchildren of people with dementia can feel frustrated, confused and alone as they watch their loved one slowly fade away. Most won’t know how to manage the changes in their family member’s behavior. As memories diminish, emotional anguish arises. Working with the family, you can help explain what’s going on and encourage the family to learn new ways of communicating and interacting with their loved one. Resources such as the Dragon Story can be especially helpful for children coping with the changes caused by a loved one’s dementia.
  • Providing cognitive exercises. People with dementia often compensate for losses in one area of the brain by retraining and strengthening a new area. By keeping their brain working, you can help people with dementia stay alert and independent much longer. Work with patients to challenge their brains’ capabilities through cognitive rehabilitation. This work might include playing a video game to improve coordination, putting clothes on a doll to remember how to dress for the day or doing memorization exercises for task sequencing. 
  • Establishing a safe and positive environment. Many people who live with dementia suffer from unexplained fears and anxieties. Often, people with dementia react to fear-inducing circumstances in the same way they did as children, perhaps by crying, hiding or hugging a wall. A safe, positive environment with lots of natural light, muted colors and plenty of signage can help reduce anxiety in dementia patients. You can also teach family members how to communicate in ways that don’t engender fears.
  • Using the three R’s to care for people with dementia. Research by Dr. Ryuta Kawashima in Japan has suggested that people with dementia may benefit from practicing reading, writing and arithmetic. Learning colors and shapes, drawing lines to connect symbols, doing simple sums in their heads and reading familiar stories have been shown to improve cognitive abilities in dementia patients. You can work with volunteers and leaders from within the dementia community to establish and promote such programming in memory care facilities and for patients living at home. 

The Impact of Nurses on Dementia Patients 

The impact a nurse can have on the quality of life for dementia patients goes beyond the obvious of administering medications and maintaining health. A seminal study on the impacts of nurses on the effects of Alzheimer’s found a positive correlation between nurses who promoted their patients’ “optimal function” by promoting and improving their quality of life as well as their health.

To many researchers, it comes down to training. Nurses who are taught to best care for dementia patients are likely to see better results. This is true both for the extent of the care and the stage at which care is administered. Early detection and treatment for dementia is key. An article published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing found that nurses who were better trained to identify early signs of dementia had fewer difficulties providing support to those patients than nurses who were not as well trained. And despite the “majority of nurses” in the study reporting they suspected Alzheimer’s disease in at least one of their patients, 54% of community nurses and 58% of practice nurses said they weren’t confident enough to diagnose, and subsequently, treat it.

The first step to changing these numbers is to improve nursing awareness of Alzheimer’s, dementia and other similar diseases. If you’d like to learn more about the care that goes into treating these types of patients, consider earning and online RN to BSN, which are designed to train working nurses how to care for a diverse and growing patient population, promote health and wellness and improve the quality of patient outcomes. Emmanuel College’s online RN to BSN program can give you the edge you need for the career you want. Earn your degree in as few as 16 months and for as little as $11,200.