Mind and body: staying healthy with dementia

Dementia is a challenge for anyone. Often people living with dementia have other physical health problems as well, making it all the harder. What can be done to support people with dementia to stay well physically? In this article we look at a few ideas.

Stay active

For people with dementia, staying active can help the brain function as well as possible and help with maintaining independence. There are lots of different physical activities that can work well. Some may need adapting, but here are some to consider:

  • walking: short or longer distances, simply as part of everyday life (for example, going to the post office)
  • cycling: this may be part of a supported cycle group, or with a friend
  • gardening: in your own garden, or a local community garden, or with a local bushcare group
  • swimming
  • a workout at the gym

More sports and health facilities are becoming aware of the particular needs of older people and people living with dementia, and are offering programs specifically aimed at people living with dementia. Look out for these in your area. Some examples might be a swimming group for people with dementia, or a Heart Foundation Walking group aimed at people with dementia. For some people it will be possible to continue with their usual exercise or sports group – for example, a golf club that openly welcomes and supports people with dementia to keep up their membership.

It is also worth thinking through simple daily chores that can count as exercise too, for example bringing in the washing, watering plants, and walking out to get the post. Chair-based exercises can be a good solution if a person is having difficulty with mobility.

Live a healthy lifestyle

Looking after your heart health, eating a healthy diet and getting a good night’s rest are all important things that can help give the brain the best chance of working well, for anyone, but especially when living with dementia.

Have a think about whether there are practical adjustments that might help here. For example, getting heavier curtains in a bedroom may help with sleeping better. Arranging for regular delivery of precooked healthy meals could help a person to eat better. Buying a home blood pressure monitoring machine may help with keeping an eye on heart health. These are all practical things that individuals can do to improve their chances of living well for longer.

There is lots of good information available now on these topics too, so start looking online or ask at your local library.

Get eyes and ears checked regularly

When a person is living with dementia, their brain is already having to work very hard to understand the messages it is getting via the senses (hearing and sight especially).

For this reason it is really important to support a person with dementia to have their ears and eyes checked regularly. With the right glasses and decent hearing aids (although these are often tricky for other reasons) a person with dementia is much better placed to follow what is going on around them.

See the doctor regularly

Having a regular general health check-up can help identify issues early and make sure that a person with dementia has access to support from the full primary health care team.

It can also include a review of medication, again helping a person with dementia to function at their best rather than taking medication which may no longer be necessary.

If a person’s circumstances change (for example, they are admitted to hospital), it is helpful if their GP can be involved in discussions about future care needs – and this is easier if their GP has a good sense of how the person has been managing day-to-day living up until the admission.

While dementia disrupts the mind, good physical health can make a huge difference in helping a person to live well with dementia.