How to boost self-identity in someone with dementia

Many people worry that the dementia journey will rob them of their identity. Whilst this is an understandable concern, it needn’t happen. Find out what you can do to maintain it

One of the greatest fears people with dementia have is that their skills, talents, achievements and personality will slip away, leaving them with little meaning or purpose in life. However, there are many ways to prevent this bleak vision of the future from ever becoming a reality
The golden rule: They may not be able to do all the things they used to but, no matter how far their illness has progressed, every person living with dementia deserves to be treated with respect.

Focus on what they can do

For example, they might not be able to prepare a three course meal anymore, but perhaps they can still serve the food, lay the table or help with washing up. Being able to participate in seemingly ordinary activities like this eases feelings of helplessness and depression and has been shown in research to strengthen feelings of self-worth.

Tip: Don’t keep telling a loved one with dementia to ‘sit down and relax’ if they’d rather get up and help. You might have the best intentions, but letting them do something (even if it’s very small) is actually kinder and more satisfying for them in the long run.

Appearance matters

Trips to a hairdresser or barber can be a simple but powerful way to preserve self-identity, whilst treats such as a manicure or massage can boost feelings of self-worth. Generally speaking, if your loved one has always taken pride in their appearance, and enjoyed clothes and grooming, it’s important that they continue to do so, with help when necessary.

Mind your manners

It’s crucial to treat a person with dementia as politely as possible because simple courtesies will help them feel valued and worthwhile. Make sure your body language is open, friendly and respectful and maintain eye contact when you talk. If in doubt, put yourself in their shoes. Try to imagine, for example, how distressed you might be to discover you needed assistance bathing or eating. If this help was given in a subtle, gentle, sensitive way it could avoid you feeling embarrassed, depressed or helpless.

See the person, not the disease

Person centred care is the best way to ensure that someone living with dementia does not lose their identity. Don’t take it for granted that you know everything about the person you’re caring for. Ask them questions about their life, look at photographs together, talk about likes and dislikes, and build a picture of life seen from their perspective.

What makes them unique?

Encourage any activity – however small – that gives your loved one a sense of ‘who’ they are. Whether they’re in the early or later stages of the journey, anything which taps into previous, comforting memories won’t only help preserve their identity, it could make them feel safer and calmer. For example, continue respecting spiritual and religious practices that have always been important to them. This has the added bonus of providing stimulation and relief from boredom and loneliness.