In 2020, the Pew Research Center reported that, compared to the rest of the world, older adults in the U.S. often live by themselves or with their spouses. This independent living among older adults is also observed in other countries with advanced economies. Families in such economies tend to have fewer children and older adults live longer. Both factors result in independent living among older adults.
Research suggests that about 15 million people with dementia live alone.
With medication, meal preparation, and in-home help (as needed), people with dementia can safely live alone.
A diagnosis of dementia may prompt families and their loved one with dementia to reconsider their choices. However, people with dementia do live by themselves. Here we discuss some common topics related to independent living after a diagnosis of dementia.
Alone with dementia – safety and risks:
The most common questions related to living alone after a diagnosis of dementia are – “Is it safe? Are there any risks?”. In the early stages of dementia, it is possible to live alone in a safe way and enjoy a meaningful life. It is estimated that about 15 million persons with dementia live alone. Some risks associated with living alone are:
- Wandering. Persons with dementia may wander and get lost. Medical ID bracelets, calling ‘safe return’ programs, or GPS trackers may help in such situations.
- Falls. Sensory problems including altered perception of depth can lead to a fall inside home. Having MedicAlert (a safety program) or daily visits from a community program is usually helpful.
- Loneliness. For some persons with dementia, living alone may bring social loneliness. Some persons with dementia may have active social life but might experience emotional loneliness.
Persons with dementia living alone and their family needs to discuss their experiences, emotions, and risks with their geriatric nurse or care manager.
Necessary lifestyle changes
Persons with dementia can certainly live alone in a safe manner and have a fulfilling life. However, depending on their changes in memory and thinking, they may need some changes in their living conditions.
Persons with dementia are usually prescribed medications for slowing down neurological changes. Several options are available to remind the patient to take their medication. A simple phone alarm may be sufficient for some persons, while others may need to use a pill box. A pill box that has an alarm reminder, a weekly pillbox, or a medication dispenser may be useful. These pill boxes are available online or at local drugstores. Your loved one with dementia may need help with buying the right one for them or setting it up.
Some people with dementia may have trouble in preparing meals but with some tweaks, they can make the process easier. For instance, add sticky notes or pictures of food on the refrigerator. Use a recipe booklet to cook food which helps in adding the right amount of ingredients. Also, use a timer to ensure that food is cooked for the right amount of time. For some loved ones with dementia, shopping for groceries can be a challenge. Instead of shopping for groceries at stores, they can order subscription meal boxes that include all ingredients and a recipe booklet. Alternatively, local organizations can help with services, such as Meals on Wheels.
Assistance with daily chores
Daily chores can become easier if there is a set schedule. Some persons with dementia may experience that it is easier to do certain tasks such as bathing, and food prep during the mornings. Also, reduce distractions while doing the chores e.g., turn off the television or loud music. As the disease progresses, a person with dementia may need more assistance with daily chores. An in-home aide can help with some tasks such as laundry, dishwashing, or meal prep. Like other retirees, it is possible for persons with dementia to age in place with some additional help.
Ways to help a person with dementia
After consulting the neurologist and their care team, if your loved one with dementia chooses to live by themselves, families can contribute in meaningful ways:
- Make space and ensure safety. For people with dementia moving around the house may become difficult. You can ensure their safety by reducing the risk of falls. For instance, remove or replace rugs. Create more space by rearranging unused pieces of furniture. Also, ensure that fire alarms and any other alarms are working well.
- Use assistive technology. Social connections are important as your loved one stays by themselves. Using assistive technology such as adapted telephones, and an iPad with accessibility settings on might be useful. Also, consider using robotic devices for various chores e.g., an automatic vacuum cleaner or a robot lawn mower might be useful.
- Transportation. Your loved one with dementia may find it difficult to drive. When possible, offer rides for weekly events such as grocery shopping or church. Alternately, you can also help them by setting up ride-sharing apps on their phone or setting up carpools for them.
For each person with dementia, the disease may progress at a different rate or in a different manner. But it is prudent to make choices about future care early on. When you cannot live on your own, living with other family members, memory care units, or nursing homes may be possible options. Consult your neurologist and care team for further guidance.