For most of us, a daily routine is something that provides comfort and security – think how often you look forward to that cup of tea or coffee at a particular time of day, or the TV programme you always make time for.
But for those with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, the presence of a routine can also be a lifeline and a way to help manage their condition. People suffering from memory loss thrive on familiarity, using anything from familiar food to familiar faces as a touchstone to help them feel grounded.
This sense of familiarity is so helpful because dementia gradually impairs a person’s ability to plan, begin and complete an activity. A daily agenda may even help a person with dementia cope with the short-term memory loss that is often one of the first things to be affected by the disease.
When you are beginning to plan a routine for your loved one, try to include all the things that they enjoy or have taken pleasure in before dementia. If, perhaps, they used to enjoy a stroll to the newsagent to buy a Sunday paper, arrange for the paper to be delivered – they may not be able to collect it any more, but the presence of the paper can provide a valuable link with their previous existence and help to reassure them. This would be a great thing to arrange even if your loved one is in a care home or assisted living situation.
Plan in regular meal times, medication, bathing and getting dressed, leisure and exercise. There are many aids that can help a person living with dementia remember when to do things, including large-font reminder clocks and timers.
Once you have established a daily procedure, try and follow it as often as possible. Disruptions in routines (such as those caused by trips away or well-intentioned visitors) can elevate your loved one’s anxiety and make it harder for them to get back into a normal schedule once the disturbance is over.
Of course things will crop up – doctor’s appointments, unexpected illnesses, an elder’s changing mood, and the progression of their disease. But with a carefully planned daily routine the stress can be minimised.
Remember – the benefits of following a daily routine can be huge. It reduces stress and anxiety, as the elder knows what’s coming next. It maintains skills and functions – if you are regularly performing an activity it reduces the chances of you forgetting how to do it. And it increases independence: something as simple as putting away the washing up can increase self-esteem and confidence because your loved one can perform it independently. Especially in the earlier stages of dementia when people are more likely to be aware of cognitive deficits, independence in a task can be a great encouragement to them.