When a loved one is experiencing cognitive decline, you start to see them change before your eyes. That can be heartbreaking. But it can also make you lose your footing when figuring out how to spend time together.

Here’s a framework you can use to bring the right focus to your interactions: Above all else, your loved one needs to be needed. That hasn’t gone away.

What does that mean, to need to be needed? Think of everything that came before this chapter in their lives.

Your loved one is accustomed to being needed and necessary in some way every day, whether it’s taking care of their homes and pets, showing up for their job and helping their families. Doing crafts and games can be fun for awhile. But they’ve lived their lives doing chores, feeling needed. Regardless of their phase of cognitive decline, your loved one still needs to feel like they’re contributing. Luckily, there are some simple ways you can accomplish that.

Seek their advice

Even people with advanced dementia can retain their expertise for a long time. If you need help with a recipe, a project, any problem they know something about, all you have to do is ask. At Arthur’s, we’ve received excellent gardening advice from several clients, even those with well-progressed dementia. When you show your loved one that you see their expertise and honor it, they’ll feel good. It’s an important part of feeling human.

Get their opinion

When your loved one is in memory care, it’s easy to fall into caretaker mode, and hover over every action. Take a step back and remember that including your loved one even in small decisions can put them at ease. When possible, offer options. Should we have vanilla or chocolate? What color yarn would you like for your hat? Should we have coffee or a short walk?

Ask directly for help

We don’t always think of it, but look for opportunities to involve your loved one directly in your next project. Their ability to lend a hand may depend on their stage of cognitive decline, so if it doesn’t work out, don’t worry about it! It’s important to keep trying. Try one of these hands-on tasks during your next visit, and just state that you need help.

It can be a project you work on together:

  • Bring a few pots, along with seeds and potting soil, and ask their help planting an herb garden for the kitchen.
  • Test a family recipe. If they can’t help with the mixing, chopping or rolling, they can guide your steps.
  • Bring a bin of PVC pipes and elbows to piece together. Just make sure the sharp edges are sanded away.

You can ask your loved one to help with simple chores.

  • Folding laundry. Start with a basket of freshly dried towels to prevent frustration.
  • Clearing and washing the dishes. Hand your loved one a rubber spatula to scrape food scraps off the plates. Or maybe they’re up to washing or rinsing a few plates.

Above all, dignity

The outcome of these interactions and activities can be a day-by-day thing. It will depend on the stage of cognitive decline and how your loved one is feeling. So if something upsets them, and things don’t go to plan, don’t worry about it. Just take the blame, say you’re sorry and move on.

Now that you have an idea on ways you can make your loved one feel needed, what are some things you’d like to try? If you have ideas or experiences, share them with us.

Learn more about how we provide specialized care in our series “Insights from Arthur’s” featuring educational videos from Arthur’s Director of Development and Senior Care Consultant, Deb Nygaard.