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Alzheimer's: Dealing with daily challenges

Medically reviewed on March 3, 2018

People who have Alzheimer's disease often need help handling routine daily activities, such as bathing, dressing, eating and using the bathroom. If your loved one needs this type of care, balance his or her loss of privacy and independence with gentleness and tact.

Bathing

Bathing can be a confusing experience for a person who has Alzheimer's. Having a routine can help. Try to:

  • Make the bath comfortable. Make sure the bathroom is warm and well-lit. Keep towels handy. Play soft music if it helps promote relaxation.
  • Keep it private. If your loved one is self-conscious about being naked, place a towel over his or her shoulders or lap. Use a sponge or washcloth to clean under the towel. Have him or her help as much as possible.
  • Help your loved one feel in control. Explain each step of the bathing process as you go.
  • Alternate full baths or showers with sponge baths. A full bath or shower two or three times a week is likely enough. In between, wash your loved one's face, hands, feet, underarms and genitals with a washcloth or sponge. It also might be easier to wash the person's hair in the sink rather than in the shower or bath.
  • Never leave a confused or frail person alone during bathing. Have your supplies ready beforehand.

Dressing

The physical and mental impairment of Alzheimer's can make dressing a frustrating experience. Here are some hints to help your loved one maintain his or her appearance:

  • Provide direction. Lay out pieces of clothing in the order they should be put on — or hand out clothing one piece at a time as you provide simple dressing instructions.
  • Limit choices. Put away some clothes in another room. Too many choices can complicate decision-making.
  • Consider your loved one's tastes and dislikes. Don't argue if your loved one doesn't want to wear a particular garment or chooses the same outfit repeatedly. Instead, consider buying a few pairs of the same outfit.
  • Make it easy. You might replace shoelaces, buttons and buckles with fabric fastening tape or large zipper pulls.

Eating

A person who has Alzheimer's might not remember when he or she last ate — or why it's important to eat. To ease the challenges that eating might pose:

  • Eat at regular times. Don't rely on your loved one to ask for food. He or she might not respond to hunger or thirst.
  • Use white dishes. Plain white dishes can make it easier for your loved one to distinguish the food from the plate. Similarly, use place mats of a contrasting color to help your loved one distinguish the plate from the table. Stick with solid colors, though, because patterned plates, bowls and linens might be confusing.
  • Offer foods one at a time. If your loved one is overwhelmed by an entire plateful of food, place just one type of food on the plate at a time. You could also offer several small meals throughout the day rather than three larger ones.
  • Cut food into bite-sized portions. Finger foods are even easier — but avoid foods that can be tough to chew and swallow, such as nuts, popcorn and raw carrots.
  • Limit distractions. Turn off the TV, radio and telephone ringer. Put your cellphone on vibrate. You might also clear the table of any unnecessary items.
  • Eat together. Make meals an enjoyable social event so that your loved one looks forward to the experience. If necessary, provide snacks to ensure his or her nutrition.

Toileting

As Alzheimer's progresses, problems with incontinence often surface. To help your loved one maintain a sense of dignity despite the loss of control:

  • Make the bathroom easy to find. Clear the path to the bathroom by removing furniture and rugs. Keep the bathroom door open so the toilet is visible, or post a picture of a toilet on the bathroom door.
  • Be alert for signs. Restlessness or tugging on clothing might signal the need to use the toilet. Be aware that your loved one might use a trigger phrase or words that might have nothing to do with going to the bathroom.
  • Don't wait for your loved one to ask. Consider taking your loved one to the bathroom on a regular basis — such as every two hours — whether or not he or she needs to go.
  • Make clothing easy to remove. Replace zippers and buttons with fabric fasteners. Choose pants with elastic waists.
  • Take accidents in stride. Offer reassurance when accidents happen.

Patience is key

As you help your loved one, be patient and compassionate. If an approach stops working, don't be discouraged. Instead, try something new or turn to support groups for ideas.

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