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Your heart is in the right place. You’re doing everything you can to make your relative who lives with dementia feel comfortable, safe, and cared for. But if you still feel like you’re failing in some important ways, or if you’re just looking to grow and improve, here are some of the key strategies used by successful family caregivers:

  1. Don’t take the words and actions of the person who lives with cognitive challenges personally. Forgetfulness will leave blank spaces in memory, and it’s natural for humans to try to make sense of what’s happening around us by filling those blanks, just as we see faces or dragons or rabbits in the clouds above us. Sometimes it’s only logical (even if untrue) to explain a missing item by pointing the finger at you. Find a way to not take it personally, and learn to speak the new language of dementia.
  2. Learn all you can about cognitive challenges and the specific kind of dementia your family member or friend is living with. Go to workshops, consult with your local Alzheimer’s Association, and learn from people who are living with dementia by reading the books they’ve written or visiting the Dementia Action Alliance website to learn as much as you can about the challenges as well as the strengths of this condition.
  3. Don’t assume that your family member can’t do anything. This attitude is bound to lead you into a huge power struggle. Work with the person to figure out their talents and skills, and where some help is needed. I know this can be difficult if insight is lacking; not everyone is willing to give up driving or hand over the checkbook when the time does come, but consulting with a counselor who is knowledgeable about these issues can help you navigate this in a way that preserves independence and dignity for everyone involved.
  4. Be sure to take care of your own physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs. You know that caregiving can quickly take over your energy and pull you away from your own medical appointments, interrupt friendships, impact your work, even pull you away from your faith community. It’s vital that you put the maintenance of these areas of self-care at the top of your to-do list! You matter, and you won’t be a good caregiver if you don’t take care of yourself.
  5. Get support! There is both an art and a science to caregiving, and there is great wisdom in hearing from other caregivers. Most of the help I’ve been able to offer the folks I’ve worked with over the years has come from the practical tips I learned from other caregivers and passed along. Support groups may not be meeting in person right now, but an online group can be a lifeline. They offer a great resource to help you with all of the issues we’ve talked about in this post! Not a group person? Consider a counselor, therapist, care manager, or clergy person.
  6. Open up to help with caregiving. Are you the only one who can provide care for the Elder in your life? Whether that’s your belief, or a preference voiced by your Elder, it’s not a realistic or sustainable approach to care. The development of a care partner team is vital to the long-term growth, success, and vitality of both you and the Elder in your care.
  7. Reimagine how you care for an Elder who has been, or continues to be, abusive. When there is a history of dysfunction in a family (defined as “painful functioning”), this trauma can lead to unrealistic and painful caregiving relationships. If you are involved in one of these complicated situations, you deserve the attention and support of a competent and experienced counselor. They can help you learn to set healthy boundaries and take care of yourself, heal from old wounds, and relate to the Elder in your life in a new way.

What would you add to this list? What are your biggest challenges, and what has helped you overcome them? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

We are working on developing some resources to support you, whether you are a family caregiver or professional care partner. Please subscribe to this blog or join our Facebook group so we can keep you notified as they become available!

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Lisa Kendall recently retired from her award-winning psychotherapy and clinical gerontology practice, and now offers training on person-directed aging and Elder care to individuals, groups, and organizations. A popular speaker at the national and international level, Lisa has a special interest in the impact of trauma across the lifespan and on family and professional care partners.

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