One of the hardest parts of caring for a loved one with dementia is coming to terms with the reality that the person you’ve been trying so desperately to keep safe, happy, and healthy will one day die of this incurable disease. Family members and friends of people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia must eventually learn to let go and allow them to pass out of this world in their own time.
Even caregivers who are not related to the patients they care for may find themselves clinging too strongly to the patient’s life, even when the patient is ready to go. It’s a tough reality to face, and the issue is made even worse by our society’s general reluctance to discuss or accept death.
Luckily, there are some things we can do to help an elderly person with dementia die more comfortably and on their own schedules. And there’s an amazing person named Teepa Snow who can help you learn how to do it.
Teepa Snow, MS, OTR/L, FAOTA, is a dementia care and education specialist with a background in occupational therapy and over 30 years of experience, which has taught her a lot about how people with dementia think and what can be done to help them cope with this horrible disease. In an effort to improve care and quality of life for dementia patients (and their caregivers), Teepa leads classes and makes videos focused on difficult dementia-related situations like the one described above.
In the video below, Teepa will discuss some things you can do to offer comfort care to a dying person, which often means not forcing the person to eat and drink if they don’t want to. She stresses that there’s a huge difference between letting go and giving up: “Giving up is where you don’t know what else to do so you give up. Letting go is realizing the next step for me is not a place you can go, and you just need to let me go. And you also often need to tell me I can go.”
Even though people with dementia aren’t “all there” toward the end of their lives, there’s still something inside them that urges them to stick around for their loved ones. So sometimes they need to be told that it’s okay, that the people they’re leaving behind will miss them but that they will be all right.
Such was the case for a woman named Gladys that Teepa took care of early in her career. Gladys was ornery and hated to eat, but she always took a bite when Teepa asked her to. One day, as Teepa was feeding her, Gladys asked her to please stop.
“I said, ‘Well Gladys, if I quit this, you know you’re going to die,'” recalls Teepa, “And she goes, ‘Honey, I know that. It’s okay.’ The reason Gladys was eating was not for Gladys. It was for me. And she needed to hear from me that it was going to be okay if she quit eating.”
Hear more of Gladys’s story and how to best care for a dementia patient in the final stages of life in the video below.
Thank you, Teepa, for sharing your wealth of knowledge with the world, especially when it comes to very difficult topics like this one.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?