With approximately one-in-six people over the age of 85 developing a condition associated with dementia, and increasing numbers of younger senior citizens also being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or other conditions marked by cognitive decline, more families are facing the challenges that come with caring for a loved one with dementia.

“While, to a certain degree, forgetfulness can be a normal part of the aging process, if families start to notice signs such as a marked decline in an elderly relative’s short-term memory, confusion or behaviour changes that cannot be otherwise accounted for, it is important that symptoms of this nature be medically assessed,” notes Ivan Oosthuizen, chief executive officer of Livewell Villages, which offer specialised dementia care.

“This is because symptoms of this nature could indicate that the individual, particularly if they are over the age of 65, could potentially be in the early stages of one of the conditions that are commonly collectively referred to as dementia.”

According to Oosthuizen, it is important to consult a psychiatrist or other relevant medical professional with an interest in geriatric health, as this is a highly specialised field.

“Although a dementia diagnosis is always upsetting, the sooner the condition is identified, the better in terms of involving the affected person in their future care plan and also from the perspective of commencing therapies that may assist in slowing the progression of their condition.”

In the event that a loved one is regrettably diagnosed with a condition that is classified under the umbrella term of ‘dementia’, it is well worthwhile for their inner circle of family and friends to learn as much as possible about the diagnosed condition and how it is likely to impact the individual and their care requirements over time.

“At Livewell Villages, we work with a network of experts who are well placed to give the advice needed if it falls outside our expertise. In addition, organisations such as Dementia SA and Alzheimer’s South Africa do invaluable work in raising awareness and understanding of dementia, and there is a wealth of information from elsewhere in the world available online to assist families in understanding what dementia means and how it is likely to affect the abilities and independence of the person concerned.”

“When the family have an understanding of the condition, it is time to consider the practical aspects of the care the person will require as the condition progresses. The families we work with have shared their experiences, and many suggest that working out a strategy for care of their loved one, from the immediate to the longer-term, can be helpful. This is even more beneficial if the person is able to play an active role in planning for their future care.”

Initial steps may include making the home environment safer for the person living with dementia and ensuring their comfort and that their daily needs are provided for. Consider such aspects as ensuring the person takes any prescribed medicine correctly each day, preparing meals for or with the individual to avoid the potential hazards of cooking with a hot stove, and security measures to prevent the person wandering off alone and potentially becoming lost.

“Seeing the effects the condition has on the person you know and love can be very difficult for a family, and it is imperative that the individual and their family are adequately supported. We host free regular support groups at our Livewell Villages in Bryanston and Somerset West, and last year we launched an online dementia support group in an effort to reach more people in need of advice, or simply to share their experiences of caring for a loved one with dementia. This is a journey families should not have to face alone.”

As dementia progresses and the person’s care needs intensify, it tends to become increasingly hard for families to provide the level of care their loved one needs in the home environment – no matter how dedicated and loving the family may be. Oosthuizen says this is a regrettable eventuality that should be considered when planning for the future, particularly in light of today’s fast pace of life.

“When you think of the way we as a society lived 20 or 30 years ago, it is really incomparable with the pace of life we are used to today. More people, women and younger people in particular, are working in demanding jobs and, in this increasingly globalised world, may often need to travel. Most family members simply cannot stay home to personally care for their elderly relatives.

“Even where the family is in a position to care for their loved one with dementia at home, the demands this can place on the primary caregiver are frequently exhausting and all-consuming, and in some cases this may impair the relationship between the carer and the person being cared for.

“With this in mind, we offer support in the form of day care, holiday care or respite care at our Livewell Villages. By arrangement, we provide dedicated care either for just a day, or for a few days or weeks at a time, so that the caregiver can attend to other matters or simply have some time for themselves, knowing that their loved one is safe in comfortable and pleasant surroundings.”

In later stages of dementia, there is often a pressing need for specialised dementia care on a more permanent basis. “Caring for a person when their condition is advanced requires very specialised skills and facilities suited to their comfort. Many people who are not familiar with caring for a person with dementia may not recognise the significance of non-verbal cues when the individual is no longer able to communicate clearly,” Oosthuizen adds.

For example, clenched fists may be a sign of pain or discomfort, even if the person is silent and gives no other sign that they may be in distress. While a home caregiver may not be aware what these signs mean for the person they are looking after, Livewell carers and occupational therapists, among other members of the care team, are well versed in what such behaviours may reveal so that residents’ needs are anticipated and their comfort is assured.

“Many families feel a sense of guilt when contemplating residential care for their elderly relatives, however putting your loved one’s needs first – particularly when their condition necessitates highly specialised requirements – really should not make anyone feel guilty. ”

Livewell Villages are very family-friendly and we welcome our residents’ friends and families’ visits. Our Villages in Bryanston and Somerset West are much like large families, and this close-knit community structure soon feels like home – both for new residents and their families,” he concluded.