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Emotional Caregiving for Someone in the Early Stages of Dementia

When someone you love shows early signs of dementia, it’s emotionally overwhelming. And so, while there are countless practical details to consume your attention, it’s good to take some time to think about cognitive decline’s emotional side—both for your loved one and for you, the caregiver. Here are some general principles to keep in mind.


APPRECIATE your own need for support. Even if at this stage caregiving isn’t labor-intensive, it’s emotion-intensive, and that will wear you out in ways you might not realize. It’s also time-intensive. Don’t underestimate the emotional toll of being always on duty.

You can get help with the chores of caregiving from in-home visits for the more difficult parts of the day. But also remember to seek out emotional support in the form of a support group, either online or in-person. Just having contact with someone who understands what you’re going through from the inside can be immensely valuable.

UNDERSTAND that cognitive decline can come with personality changes. A cheerful person might become depressed. A gentle person might become combative. A trusting person might develop unreasonable suspicions. Realizing that these changes are symptoms of dementia can help you retain some emotional distance from them.

INCLUDE other family members in your caregiving responsibilities. Even remote family members can play an important role and provide a respite for you as the primary caregiver. Think about who in your family is best suited for different tasks from regular phone calls and visits to helping to coordinate medical care. You may need another reasonable resource to advise you when you’re making difficult decisions. Caring for a family member with dementia requires teamwork, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Prioritize the emotional response over the logical one.

RESPOND to the emotion your loved one is expressing even when the words don’t make much sense. Laugh with them when something strikes them as funny, even if you can’t understand the joke. Or if you can tell that they’re anxious about something—even if you can’t understand what, exactly, is worrying them—you can respond to the anxiety with general reassurance that you’re taking care of things. Prioritize the emotional response over the logical one.

Or sometimes you do understand the anxiety your loved one is describing, but it’s not a reasonable fear. Instead of arguing about facts, trying to convince your loved one that they’re mistaken, address the emotion. It’s the emotion that’s most important.

COMMUNICATE as much in emotions as in thoughts. Your loved one might not understand everything you’re telling them, but they will understand the tone of your voice: your interest, your amusement, your earnestness, your loving concern. Emotional communication is often possible when logical communication is not.

REMINISCE about the past. Don’t say, “Do you remember…” and don’t ask questions. Just tell stories. Share the funny, the loving, and even the sad memories of your life together. In this way, you can tap into the emotional bond you’ve built over the years. The details may have slipped away, but it’s the emotions that matter most.