How to Help Someone With Cognitive Impairment

How to Help Someone With Cognitive Impairment

Dementia is a progressive illness that causes a gradual loss of memory, thinking, judgment, and communication skills. Most dementia patients eventually need help performing daily tasks which, in an estimated 65 - 75% of cases, is provided at home by family caregivers.

If you are helping to support a loved one with dementia, there are several things you can do to make the process easier. Read on to learn how to help someone with a cognitive impairment through effective communication, behavioral management, and safety measures.

What is Mild Cognitive Impairment?

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is when someone has cognitive issues that are slightly more severe [1] than most others their age. MCI sometimes precedes the more severe cognitive decline associated with dementia and can include problems with memory, thinking, and judgment [2].

People with MCI are typically aware that they have memory problems, but their cognitive impairment is not pronounced enough to cause significant problems in their day-to-day lives.

MCI is a normal part of the aging process [3] and, for many people, never gets worse. However, it can also be a predictor of early-stage dementia [4]. Dementia is a progressive illness, meaning the symptoms get worse over time. They are typically mild at first but become more pronounced and debilitating as the patient moves through the stages of dementia [5].

How to Help Someone With Dementia

If you have a loved one with dementia, there are lots of things you can do to support them. People with dementia often need help with daily activities and, as the condition progresses, may eventually need assistance with all aspects of their day-to-day lives.

Building Empathy and Patience

Compassion, patience, and empathy are key when caring for someone with dementia [6]. Empathy is the ability to understand what your loved one is going through and see things from their perspective. This insight can make it easier to address their needs and help alleviate symptoms of dementia.

Caring for someone with dementia can be frustrating, especially as the illness evolves and symptoms worsen. Practicing patience can help you maintain compassion and empathy for those with cognitive decline and promote warmth and respect in your relationship.

Effective Communication

A common symptom of dementia is difficulty understanding and using language  [7]. Communication problems usually become more pronounced as the patient moves through the stages of dementia, and those with severe dementia often lose all ability to communicate. If you are caring for someone with dementia, effective communication is vital for understanding and addressing their needs and maintaining a positive relationship.

Dementia affects everyone differently, so the most effective communication methods  [8] will depend heavily on your loved one’s specific symptoms and needs. Be sure to listen carefully when they speak, and encourage them to express themselves non-verbally if necessary. When talking to someone with cognitive impairment [9], it often helps to speak slowly and clearly using short, simple sentences. Engaging the person in regular activity as recommended by doctors and incorporating education about their condition into these tasks can significantly aid in managing their condition. The use of reminders can also be incredibly beneficial, aiding people with dementia to adhere to their routines.

Joining support communities for caregivers dealing with dementia can provide you with necessary healthcare advice and additional insights into managing the illness and dealing with the stress it brings.

Assisting With Activities of Daily Living

The progressive cognitive decline caused by dementia means that most patients eventually need help performing daily tasks. This may include [10] help with self-care, eating, household chores, and managing finances. Working out a daily care routine  [11] can help you to stay organized and reduce stress, and will create more time for games and other and other activities [12].

Managing Challenging Behaviours

Dementia often causes behavioral changes  [13] that can, at times, be difficult to manage. Common behavioral changes caused by dementia may include repetitive speech or actions, wandering, insomnia or sundowning, loss of appetite, and hallucinations and delusions. Cognitive decline can also lead to changes in personality, with some patients displaying anger, aggression, and unusual sexual behaviors.

Although you cannot change how a person with dementia behaves, there are things you can do to help manage challenging behaviors such as

  • Sticking to a daily routine
  • Avoiding arguments
  • Reassuring the person that they are safe and that you are there to help them
  • Avoiding displays of anger or frustration
  • Using humor where appropriate
  • Re-directing inappropriate behaviors by asking for help with simple tasks (e.g., folding laundry)
  • Using music, singing, or other pleasant activities to distract from challenging emotions and behaviors

Legal and Financial Planning

The symptoms of dementia make it difficult for patients to perform complex tasks, such as legal and financial planning. It’s best to make legal and financial plans [14] for the future as soon as possible so the patient is able to communicate their wishes regarding long-term care and other matters.

Putting these plans in place sooner rather than later can reduce stress and confusion around legal and financial matters. It also allows dementia patients the opportunity to have a say in how their care will be managed in the future.

Prioritize Safety in the Home

Home safety is an important aspect of caring for someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. As dementia symptoms become more severe, patients may begin to forget key safety measures [15] (such as turning off the oven or locking the front door). Reduced mobility may also put elderly patients at greater risk of falls and injury.

You can make a home safer for someone with dementia by

  • Ensuring smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are functional
  • Leaving emergency contact numbers near all phones
  • Installing automatic shut-off switches on stoves, ovens, and heaters
  • Installing safety latches on cabinet doors and childproof plugs on unused electrical outlets
  • Keeping floors clean and clutter-free
  • Removing potentially dangerous items and substances (such as medicines, alcohol, cleaning products, knives, and other weapons)

Avoid Caregiver Burnout: Self-Care for Caregivers

Caring for someone with dementia can be exhausting and stressful. Therefore, self-care is crucial for preventing burnout, and for maintaining your own physical and mental health. Signs that you may be experiencing caregiver burnout [16] include:

  • Denial about the effects of dementia on your loved one or yourself
  • Anger and/or frustration
  • Social withdrawal
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Persistent fatigue or exhaustion
  • Sleep problems
  • Irritability
  • Lack of concentration
  • Physical and mental health issues

As a caregiver, it is vital that you carve out time to relax, exercise, and practice self-care. If you find yourself struggling, seek out community resources to help support you through the process of caring for a loved one with dementia.


Dementia patients often require daily help with life’s activities, and in most cases, this support is provided at home by family members or through the assistance of neighboring adults. Caring for a loved one with dementia can induce stress, and induce feeling overwhelmed. It's crucial to utilize any available resources, including professional health services that provide help for people with dementia and their primary caregivers. When it comes to supporting someone with cognitive impairment such as Alzheimer's disease, it is essential to have a comprehensive understanding of their needs and challenges.


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About The Author

Mary Anne Roberto, the co-founder of Always Home Connected is a dedicated CNA and a Certified Positive Approach To Care Consultant (Teepa Snow), specializing in dementia care.  Her goal is to create awareness about those experiencing cognitive changes and to provide caregivers with resources and tools that are necessary to help alleviate some of the challenges caregivers face on a day-to-day basis.