The Gift of Purpose

The holiday season has busy and joyful energy to it.  It often feels like there’s a buzz in the air where everyone is rushing somewhere or hurrying to do something.

 

Many people with dementia are sensitive to the energy and emotional state of those around them. They will often pick up on this energy of hurrying and they may want to help. They’ll want to join in the activity and be part of the buzz of energy.

 

Human nature desirses a sense of purpose.

 

We want to feel productive and we want to provide meaningful contributions.  This sense of wanting to contribute and be helpful and productive is not impacted by many forms of dementia, so people very much want to be involved and be helpful. When someone with dementia can sense that everyone else around them is hurrying to complete tasks, they will want to join in and assist too.

 

 

If someone’s functioning level has been impacted, it may be difficult for them to contribute in the ways they did previously.  In the past, your father may have gone to select a Christmas tree and cut it down himself, then tie it to the roof rack, drive home, and set the tree up. That may no longer be possible for him to do entirely on his own. Perhaps he doesn’t drive anymore; perhaps his physical strength or sense of direction is impaired.

 

Even though he cannot complete the task in full, is there a way that he can still be involved in the process?  Can he be part of the trip to select the tree? Can he manage some of the cutting? Or hold the tree steady while a grandson saws away?  Continuing to involve him in the process will be important to his sense of self-esteem and his need to feel productive. 

 

Many forms of dementia interfere with the brain’s ability to sequence an activity. 

 

Many tasks are actually a series of separate, smaller tasks that must be done in a particular order.  Baking, for example, involves many separate tasks that are all sequenced in the right order. Perhaps your mother-in-law baked countless cookies and squares during the holiday season. Now, she makes toast and tea, but not much more. Expecting that she can bake a dozen varieties of cookies is not reasonable, but involving her in a few favourite recipes will help her to shine.

 

When approaching a complex task like baking, break down each step into a separate task. If there are any tasks that can be a stand-alone job, get your mother-in-law to be in charge of that step. Maybe the walnuts need to be crushed for one recipe. You can get your mother-in-law set up crushing walnuts. It may be faster to do it yourself or tempting to use the electric food processor, but the purpose isn’t to be fast and efficient.

 

The purpose is to involve your mother-in-law in the traditions that she founded.  It’s pretty likely that she didn’t have an electric food processor when she first started baking that recipe.  Breaking the walnuts by hand is likely a familiar task from years gone by and something which she can feel successful contributing.

 

All too often, someone with dementia will say “what can I do?” or perhaps “I don’t know what to do…” and well-meaning family members will respond “you don’t have to do anything! You just relax and sit over here.”  In some cases, if someone is overstimulated and needs a break, that might be the kindest option. But in most instances, the person with dementia is genuinely reaching out and wanting to feel productive by contributing something meaningful to all that is going on around them.  By finding a task that matches their ability level, you are helping to meet that fundamental human need for productivity.

 

Remember that the task might not be about doing. It might be more about being—being close to you, being part of the action, being a contributing family member.  If many tasks are just too difficult or overwhelming, perhaps they can be involved in a being type of way.

 

Maybe the dog is overly excited by all of the activity and you can ask your father to hold the dog on his lap and pet the dog to keep him calm.  He is being a comfort to the dog…or perhaps the dog is a comfort to him, but either way, they are both content.

 

 

Perhaps you’re wrapping presents and the roll of tape keeps disappearing under all the wrapping paper and boxes. Your mother-in-law might like to be the keeper of the tape as you’re wrapping. She’s right there with you and she’s involved in her own way. You may even get to chuckle about how you lose the tape and she’s keeping you on track.

 

It may take more effort on your part, and it will definitely take more time and some creativity to find tasks that match ability levels and provide meaningful contributions, but the rewards will almost certainly be worth it!

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Why do Seniors Fall?

Do you know a senior who has suffered a serious fall? Likely you do, since approximately 30% of seniors who live in the community suffer a fall each year. The consequences of a fall can be quite serious—injury, hospitalization, even death from complications.

 

“Falling isn’t as much about slips and trips. It’s about the failure to recover. Slips and trips happen at all ages.” - Dr. George Fernie

 

Did you know that falls are the cause of 90% of all hip fractures, 50% of all injury-related hospitalizations in seniors, and the 5th leading cause of death in the elderly?! These numbers also double when a senior has dementia. So, it is extremely vital in keeping seniors strong and steady on their feet.

 

 

Why do seniors fall in the first place?

There are various external factors at play that contribute to slips and trips; such as:

 

  • Loose carpets/rugs
  • Poor lighting
  • Unstable chairs
  • Steep stairs
  • Poor footwear (e.g. slippers)

While some falls can be attributed to tripping—such as tripping over floor mats, pets or curbs—other falls seem mysterious. The person will report that they just went down and we're not sure why. In many of those mysterious cases, the fall is due to internal factors such as:

 

  • Visual and hearing deficits
  • Vestibular dysfunction
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Neuropathy (abnormal sensory feedback)
  • Low blood pressure
  • Edema/swelling
  • Pain and foot drop
  • Weakness and tightness
  • Decreased flexibility
  • Slowed reflexes and balance disorder 

What can we do to prevent falls?

Get rid of all the external factors that cause slips and trips! Ensure that your living space has no loose carpets or rugs, the lighting is bright for increased visibility, all chairs are sturdy with armrests, everything needed is on the main floor (no stairs), and that proper footwear is worn in the house.

 

 

Improve balance and stability!

 

The number one key to fall prevention is staying active! Physical activity has shown to mitigate the deathly consequences of falls – just walking, gardening or housework is enough for an elderly loved one.

 

However, when your elderly loved one refuses to do regular exercise the best option is to increase their base of support. To remain balanced, there must be a stable base of support—the wider the base of support the more stable it becomes. The base of support is the invisible box that can be drawn around your feet when you are standing. Added to this is our centre of mass—which is approximately where our belly button is located.

 

When someone’s centre of mass is in the middle of their base of support, they are perfectly balanced. When their centre of mass begins to reach the outer edge of their base of support, they are more prone to falling.

 

“She says she wants to keep living in her home. We say it starts by keeping her on her feet.” - American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons

 

For example, a ballerina narrows her base of support to be only one square inch when she is en pointe. Her balance is quite precarious because her base of support has been reduced. The only way that she remains upright is by perfectly hovering her centre of mass over her base of support.  She is constantly adjusting to ensure that her centre of mass doesn't sway too far aware from her base of support.

 

In contrast, a football player crouches low and spreads his feet wide so that he has a wider base of support than he normally would. He may even put one hand to the ground adding a third point of contact and expanding his base of support further. He has a stable base of support, and his centre of mass is positioned in the middle of his base.

 

In the case of a frail senior, their feet may ache or have bunions, causing that person to only walk on the edges of their feet, which reduces their base of support and their balance. Instead of using the full surface of their foot, they have reduced their base of support more like a ballerina.  As well, the senior’s posture may be more forward-leaning, pushing the centre of mass to the outer edge of the base of support, causing instability. A senior will not likely be crouching down to touch the ground for support, the way a football player does.

 

The best way to create a strong base of support is to use a walker. The four wheels of the walker expand someone’s base and provide the necessary support. Much like a football player, a well-balanced senior using a walker is less likely to fall than a senior who is precariously balancing on sore feet. If their posture is forward-leaning then the walker extends the base of support ensuring that the centre of mass remains in the middle of the base of support.

 

Encourage the seniors in your life to carefully assess their centre of mass and base of support to ensure that they are as safely balanced as possible. Every fall that is prevented is a great success and ensures a longer and healthier life for that senior. 

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