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How those with dementia see the world and why it’s scary

Visual distortions of dementia

People living with dementia can start to see the world in new ways. They may see things that aren’t there, or not notice things that are. And what they do see can be confusing, and even frightening. It can help us to help them if we understand a little more about how visual perception changes as dementia takes hold.

Take a second look

A Canadian senior living group, Amica Senior Lifestyles, has produced a really useful visual guide to how the world looks to someone living with dementia.

The visual guide shows how small changes in perception can leave those with dementia perplexed and potentially scared of things that we can’t even see. These include:

  • Written reminders. Are you leaving out reminder post-its for appointments and jobs to do? Great idea, but someone living with dementia may not be able to interpret the writing so easily, or keep the notes organised.
  • The gift of plants and flowers. Those living with dementia may struggle to look after plants regularly, and that applies to pets and often themselves. On the other hand, you may find someone putting out food for animals they no longer have, or making beds for people who no longer live there.
  • Distinguishing day and night. People with dementia can get confused about the time and may often be up and about at 4am, thinking it’s the afternoon.
  • Losing track of stuff. While many of us spend time searching for our glasses, for those with dementia losing important stuff like spectacles, hearing aids, mobile phones and more is a regular occurrence. At the same time objects can turn up in unexpected places, like gardening tools in the house, which might not be noticed and can cause trip and other hazards.
  • Visual distortions. This is where people with dementia really do see the world in a different way. Busy wallpaper can look like insects crawling across the wall. Shadows can look like black holes leading to bottomless pits. A sensitivity to light can make even the gentlest light uncomfortable. And impaired depth and distance perception can make simple tasks like making a pot of tea or using the stairs more hazardous.

What can we as caregivers do to help?

To help those living with and caring for someone with dementia, Dr Heather Palmer, an established expert in brain/behaviour relationships and a well-being adviser for Amicus, has shared her tips to better understand the cognitive challenges of dementia:

  • Learn to understand the symptoms of dementia, such as forgetfulness, agitation, or hallucinations
  • Create strategies and plans that create joy and minimise triggers that may distress someone with dementia, such activities when a senior is typically most alert and happy or allowing seniors to enjoy a harmless delusion
  • Track the activities that help comfort a senior with dementia, such as soothing music or old photos, and those that cause anxiety or resistance i.e. noisy environments or hunger

How can we help ourselves?

Expert advice to help caregivers look after themselves includes:

  • Connecting with other caregivers, friends, and other family, to help spread out the work and reduce your fatigue and stress. This can be as simple as asking a friend to pick up groceries
  • Seeking help finding memory care services can help caregivers provided specialised support and structure for someone with dementia
  • Talking to others about your challenges and feelings such as guilt, frustration and grief
  • Asking for support when you need a break to help avoid burnout and recharge

Like more support in caring for someone living with dementia? Try contacting the organisations listed in our Directory.

Author Kathy Lawrence is editor of When They Get Older

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Image Amica Senior Lifestyles

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