Dementia can be a devastating diagnosis. The characteristic problems with memory, thinking, language and judgment are a challenge, but there are also “behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia” (BPSD), including agitation, aggression, wandering, resistance to care, delusions, hallucinations and repetitive speech. These symptoms can be very upsetting for people with dementia as well as their loved ones, and are often the reason people are admitted to long-term care (1).
How do caregivers cope with these challenging behaviours? Often, doctors prescribe medications including antipsychotics, antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs to help calm patients, but there are problems associated with drug use including side effects that can lead to serious health issues (2-4). Recent evidence recommends a shift in the way we manage challenging symptoms of dementia, valuing non-drug approaches that calm and reassure people as a first treatment step.
What works best? Try one – or all – of these 3 non-drug approaches for people with dementia, supported by recent high quality research. Click on the titles for more information and to read the research summaries.
One of the most promising approaches involves an individualized person-centred model of care in which a person’s background, likes/dislikes, values, culture and abilities are taken into account to develop communication and care strategies that encourage positive responses and interactions (5-7).
Person-centred care has also been shown to benefit caregivers by promoting greater job satisfaction and preventing burnout (8).
Various types of sensory stimulation, such as hand massage, can help improve behaviours and the general wellbeing of people with dementia (9).
Many people enjoy the uplifting and relaxing qualities of music. Relaxing music has been shown to promote cooperation during meal times. Listening to music of their choice while receiving one-on-one personal care—such as bathing—may also help improve behaviour among people with dementia who are more resistant to care (10). Similarly, receiving five or more sessions of a music-based therapeutic strategy can possibly reduce symptoms of depression and improve overall behavioural issues in people with dementia who are living in long-term care settings (11).
Other drug-free strategies currently being studied for their impact on agitation among nursing home residents include bright light therapy, doll therapy, pet therapy, and aromatherapy (9;12;13).
Considering the rapid rise in the rate of dementia and the toll it takes on individuals, families, caregivers and healthcare systems, it’s not surprising that experts are intent on exploring and testing new treatments and therapies. Non-drug approaches not only avoid the side effects of medication, there is increasing evidence that they help reduce challenging behaviours associated with dementia, making life a bit easier for people with dementia and their caregivers.