Tips for Nurses Working with Alzheimer’s and Dementia Patients

Working with dementia patients or those with Alzheimer’s Disease can be a challenge, especially if it’s a new population for a nurse. The care required is extensive, challenging, and nearly constant. While it isn’t an area for everyone, working with these types of patients can be very rewarding. If you are currently working with or are interested in caring for this patient population, below are a few great tips for nurses working with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. 

Alzheimer’s and Dementia Information 

These two diseases are illnesses that affect the brain, and like other conditions such as arthritis, heart disease, and diabetes, the risk of developing the diseases increase as a person ages. Additionally, there is a genetic predisposition for developing Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. Dementia generally develops as a result of old age and history of head trauma, while Alzheimer’s develops from the degeneration of a specific brain tissue. Patients with these diseases may also have coexisting health problems as well. Therefore, nurses need to be prepared for the more complex needs of these patients.  

Be Flexible 

No day is the same when working with Alzheimer’s or dementia patients, so nurses need to be fairly flexible to keep up with their day-to-day needs. And due to the nature of these illnesses, the diseases will progress with time, meaning that the patient will experience a progressive decline in independence. As patients lose their independence and grow more dependent on caregivers, it is important to be able to adapt routines. 

Dementia patients can be unpredictable since their thoughts are not rooted in reality. Caregivers may find that these patients have repetitive requests. For example, if a patient insists on wearing the same shirt every day, the family might want to consider purchasing a few of the same so that they can easily be worn while the others are being washed. 

Focus on the Individual 

Dementia and Alzheimer’s diseases certainly do have common patterns and characteristics, but no two patients have identical symptoms or disease progression. As such, what might work for one patient might not work with another patient. When keeping patient care flexible, a nurse can tailor care plans for individual patients that will help them deal with the everyday confusion and frustrations.  

Make it Safer 

Due to the nature of the disease, dementia and Alzheimer’s patients will need to have a much safer environment than they perhaps lived in before the disease onset. With lower problem-solving abilities and a less effective judgment on situations, even simple situations can prove dangerous for these patients. Here are a few things to pay specific attention to: 

  • Lock everything. Having a dementia or Alzheimer’s disease patient in the home can be similar to having a young child; dangerous items need to be locked up or kept away from where the patient can find it. Medication, cleaning chemicals, kitchen knives, alcohol, and guns all need to be hidden and locked away from where a patient could reach them. 
  • Fire safety. Caregivers should also keep flammable items away from the patient, including matches and lighters. If the patient is a smoker and wants to continue, it should only be done under supervision. A fire extinguisher should always be accessible. 
  • Prevent falls. Because these patients often experience a loss of coordination, it is vital to prevent slips and falls. Put away any loose extension cords or clutter that could cause the patient to trip, and place handrails on stairs or other areas of the home. 

Don’t Forget Nutrition 

One of the lesser-known side effects of Alzheimer’s disease is that eating and drinking can become a difficult task for patients. If they seem to be struggling to chew, a common symptom, the types of foods given to the patients may need to be adjusted. If there are concerns about about the patient not eating enough or staying hydrated, smaller, more manageable meals at greater frequency throughout the day may be helpful. Nutritious, high-calorie, high-protein foods should be the focus of meals, and processed foods and low-nutrient foods should be avoided. 

Make Things Easier 

Patients may experience that certain tasks are not as easy for them as they used to be, which can lead to frustration. To minimize this and to help the patient feel more at ease, make small changes throughout the day. Try the following: 

  • Establish a routine. 
  • Go slow. Don’t forget that common tasks will take your patient longer to complete than either of you are used to, so allow extra time for meals, hygiene, and other activities. 
  • Give them choices. Let them have ownership over their daily activities, but don’t give them too much freedom or too many decisions; this could lead to confusion or stress. 
  • Keep them busy. Give them simple activities to do, like a puzzle or painting. This will help keep their minds active and will reduce boredom. 
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Dr. Jenna Liphart Rhoads Ph.D, RN, CNE

Dr. Jenna Liphart Rhoads is a registered nurse and a nurse educator. She earned a BSN from Saint Francis Medical Center College of Nursing and an MS in nursing education from Northern Illinois University. Jenna earned a Ph.D. in education with a concentration in nursing education from Capella University where she researched the moderation effects of emotional intelligence on the relationship of stress and GPA in military veteran nursing students.