With a New Year often comes resolutions to change our routines. Things we’ve always done, that perhaps aren’t so good for us, are intended to be banished in favour of routines that are healthier or that we perceive are better for us in some way.
Routine is in sharp focus for me since becoming a parent – the deluge of ‘advice’ on the best routine for your baby can be pretty overwhelming, and we decided before our daughter was born that we were going to do things our own way, responding to her as the individual that she is. To this day, we still don’t own a ‘baby book’ that attempts to ‘train’ our child like a mechanical doll!
It’s this parenting experience that has inspired me to think about how routine is perceived for people at the other end of the age spectrum, and particularly people who are living with dementia. The majority of professional ‘experts’ seem to be in favour of supporting the person with dementia to retain their own personal routine – that is until the person needs inpatient hospital care, or indeed residential social care, in which case their routine is mostly thrown out of the window and replaced with whatever the institution believes helps them to run their services most efficiently.
Whenever I’ve been asked about routine, I’ve generally advocated for the person’s own routine to be maintained and protected to give the individual continuity. As so much changes for the person with dementia, this seems a sensible way to help the person to remain grounded in something that feels familiar and that gives them the best chance of maximising their independence. Most people I know who are living with dementia generally say that their routine is vital to their sense of wellbeing and ability to cope.
But there is one very important caveat. Be guided by the person. As family carers, or health and social care professionals, we should never be so wedded to keeping to what we perceive is the person’s routine that we become oblivious to the person trying to change their routine. Often, if a person with dementia begins to stray from their ‘normal’ routine, we at best look to guide them back to it, and at worst become so obsessed with the routine that we berate the person for not adhering to it and try to forcefully pull them back into it, regardless of whether this is what they want or not.
It’s the routine. It’s how it’s always been. It cannot change. Ever.
Except that this is tantamount to trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It doesn’t work. Routine should never become a watchword for control. For some people routine is vital, for others less so, but regardless of how the person has historically run their life they are completely at liberty to change that now. Just because the person is living with dementia doesn’t mean that they don’t know what they want.
Living with dementia may mean that the person can’t necessarily find the words to explain what they want, and through our bombardment of communication, questions and nagging, may become so worn down that they either just give in – which could lead to feelings of worthlessness or depression – or fight back, which is commonly labelled by the ill-informed as ‘challenging behaviour’ (a term I dislike immensely).
As individuals providing care and support, we have to have the courage, however hard it might be, to take a step back and ask ourselves:
- What is the person trying to tell us?
- Have the person’s needs changed to a point that their ‘old’ routine no longer works for them?
- Is there something about when the person wants to eat, sleep, wash or go out that is different because they are trying to respond to what their body is asking them to do? (We are not wired up to their brain or their body, and we cannot ever REALLY know what either is telling the person to do).
- Does the person want to change their routine just because they can? For a person not living with dementia, this might be positively packaged up as an ‘important life change’, a ‘New Year’s resolution’, a ‘health kick’ or some other such celebrated deviation from the norm. Why when a person with dementia wants to change things is the reaction so often to throw our hands up in horror and declare that this won’t work and shouldn’t happen?
So often I hear from families, or health and social care professionals, who feel that there must be something intensely wrong with the person for changing their routine.
- Is this a sign that the person’s dementia is progressing? Maybe, maybe not. What is it a sign of is the person wanting control over their life, of having the ability to follow what they feel is right for them and the confidence to do that. So not an entirely negative turn of events.
- How can I stop this? It’s a type of arrogance to believe that you can or should. To take away choice and control is to condemn a person with dementia to a life that disempowers them and is completely counterproductive to what you should be wanting to support, which is to enable the person to live as well as possible with their dementia in a way that makes sense to them.
- What can I do? You can support the person to find a new routine that works for them. That may be one set regime that they like to follow, or it may be a movable feast where every day is a little different. Yes, that can be hard to predict and more difficult to support than the one fixed routine, but it’s about what the person wants and needs and they are the only real arbiters of that.
Until next time…