When dementia enters the final stage of a loved one’s life, it brings with it an amalgam of emotions for everyone involved. This tumultuous period demands not only coming to terms with the inevitable loss but also requires adapting to the changed demeanor of a person once known so intimately.
Dementia is not a single disease, but a term used to describe a group of symptoms affecting memory, thinking, and social abilities. It’s a progressive condition, which means symptoms start out slowly and worsen over time. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia among older adults. As dementia progresses, it affects not just memory, but also communication, physical abilities, and the ability to perform self-care tasks.
When a loved one nears the end of their life with dementia, it’s common to experience anticipatory grief – the deep sadness that arises in anticipation of losing someone dear. This grief is often mixed with exhaustion from possibly years of caregiving and, often, the feeling of losing the person “bit by bit” as their memory and personality change.
In the final stages of dementia, individuals may not be able to communicate or recognise family members. They often need assistance with daily activities and may experience difficulty swallowing, significant weight loss, and increased susceptibility to infections. Understanding these symptoms can help set realistic expectations and equip you to provide the right care.
Providing comfort and care
- Palliative measures. When dementia is in its final stage, the focus of care often shifts to comfort rather than cure. Palliative care, which aims to relieve symptoms and suffering, can be a valuable resource. Discuss options such as pain management, and spiritual or emotional support with the healthcare team.
- Physical touch. Often, as cognitive function declines, the sense of touch remains a powerful means of communication. Holding a loved one’s hand, gently stroking their hair, or giving a soft massage can convey love and connection.
- Familiar environment. Surroundings that are familiar and comfortable can be reassuring. Keep cherished photos or treasured possessions nearby, and consider playing favorite music softly in the background.
- Communication. Though verbal communication may be limited, continue talking calmly and reassuringly to your loved one. Use simple sentences and maintain eye contact. Your presence and voice can be comforting, even if they cannot communicate back.
- Respite care. Caregiving, especially in the final stages of dementia, can be both physically and emotionally draining. Don’t hesitate to seek respite care or lean on family members and friends to share the load. Taking care of yourself is essential in order to be present for your loved one.
The final farewell
As you navigate the twilight of your loved one’s life, it is important to also prepare for their passing. Engage in discussions with the healthcare team to understand the signs of approaching death and to make any necessary arrangements. This is also a time to say your goodbyes; let your loved one know that they are loved and that it’s okay for them to let go when they are ready.
The final stages of dementia are a poignant reminder of the fragility of human life. Although this period is fraught with grief, it also offers a sacred opportunity to provide comfort, love, and dignity to a cherished person at the end of their journey. In embracing them with compassion and understanding, you offer not just solace but honor the tapestry of memories and experiences that made their life uniquely precious.
Tim Williamson, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.