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Alzheimer’s: Creating a Safe, Soothing Place for Your Loved One

Alzheimer’s disease causes more than memory loss. Patients develop visual agnosia, the inability to identify objects and people. They develop auditory agnosia, inability to process sounds, and other agnosias. These mental failures are painful to see.

You can’t change the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, but you can create a safe and calming place for your loved one.

Maybe your loved one has moved in with you. Even if your loved one is in a nursing home, you can influence – and perhaps change – the living space to meet their needs. These action steps are a starting point. As your loved one’s illness progresses, you will think of other ways to help.

1. REMOVE THE CLUTCH. Too much clutter is upsetting and makes it harder for your loved one to find things. Clear the desk, bedside table and other surfaces. You can buy open boxes for storage. I bought a bathroom shelf for my mom, the one that goes over the toilet and is held in place with springs. The open shelves made it easier for her to store and find things.

2. CLEAR WAYS. Remove throw rugs and make sure there are no obstructions at the door. Shorten or coil long electrical cords that could trip your loved one. Move furniture away from the middle of the room if your loved one uses a walker.

3. STORE FURNITURE. The arrangement of furniture depends on the degree of dementia of your loved one. First plan the arrangement on paper. I arranged the furniture in my mother’s workshop. The couch was across from her bookcase, which contained Mom’s “treasures.” Her small dining table and chairs were in front of the window so she could enjoy the view. Once you’ve arranged the furniture, leave it in place.

4. USE VISUAL CUES. The Canadian government, in an Internet article titled “At Home with Alzheimer’s Disease”, says that you should “mark the apartment door of the person with Alzheimer’s disease in a very distinctive way , perhaps with a photograph, wreath or flag of some kind. “I hung a wreath of hearts on the door of my mom’s apartment. Thanks to the wreath, mom always knew which door was hers. Experiment with other visual cues, like a picture of socks on the front of a sock drawer.

5. INCLUDE FAMILY THINGS. “Alzheimer’s: Smoothing the transition on moving day”, an article on http://www.MayoClinic.com, says it is important for the Alzheimer patient to have familiar things. “Familiar objects can trigger a sense of belonging and enhance your loved one’s sense of security,” the article notes. My mother felt safe in her studio because she had her own bedroom furniture, dining table, and favorite chair.

6. CHOOSE CALM COLORS. Nancy L Mace and Peter V. Rabins, MD, authors of “The 36-Hour Day,” say that “people with brain impairment may be less able to distinguish between similar color intensities.” Your loved one may not be able to tell the difference between light blue and light green, for example. Bright colors can be disturbing. That’s why the Greater Illinois Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association recommends “soothing pastel hues such as peach, pink, beige, ivory, light blues, greens, and lavenders.”

7. MARK THE SPACE WITH COLOR. The contrast between light walls and dark handrails will help your loved one distinguish the space. The authors of “The 36-Hour Day” suggest painting risers and stair treads in contrasting colors. Mace and Rabins also say that you should “delineate doorways, mantelpieces, and other things the person bumps into with bright tape in a contrasting color and color intensity.”

8. PAY ATTENTION TO THE PATTERN. “AD patients see and hear things that have no basis in reality,” according to the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center in San Diego, California. This point is made in an Internet history of the Greater Illinois Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. Apparently the residents of a nursing home thought the vines on the wallpaper were snakes and they kept banging on the walls. At this time of life, plain fabrics and wallcoverings are better choices for your loved one.

9. HAVE ENOUGH LIGHT. Accidents can happen in dimly lit areas or in heavily shaded areas. Make sure there is enough light, especially in the bathroom. Place a nightlight next to the bed and mark the path to the bathroom with additional nightlights. “The 36-Hour Day,” says putting reflective tape around the bathroom door can also help your loved one at night.

10. CUT THE GLARE. Buy matte paint instead of gloss to reduce glare. The floor should also have a glare-free surface. You can also reduce glare by hanging sheer curtains at the window and installing blinds. Use soft bulbs in lamps. If your loved one is severely demented, close the curtains at night and cover the mirrors.

11. AVOID Wandering. Hang small signs on the doors to prevent your loved one from wandering off. You can also hang bead curtains in open doorways. Install door and window locks in unusual and/or hidden places. The Canadian government, in its publication “At Home with Alzheimer’s Disease”, recommends two locks – a chain lock and a deadbolt – on exit doors. If you have a door that opens onto a busy street, hang a red STOP sign on the door.

12. ADD LIFE. A growing plant can give your loved one weeks of enjoyment. Before buying a plant, make sure it is non-toxic. Provide a watering can if your loved one is still able to water the plant. (Check for spills later.) Watching fish is also fun for people with Alzheimer’s disease, but if you’re buying fish, you need to take care of it. Your loved one can also benefit from pet therapy.

These action steps will help your loved one feel safer and calmer. As his dementia progresses, you will need to take further action steps. The best action you can take is to keep saying “I love you.”

Copyright 2005 by Harriet Hodgson.

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