How Can a Counselor Help Someone with Dementia?

Dementia isn’t one disease but a broad term describing symptoms leading to the progressive loss of memory and cognitive function. It can be devastating news when you or your loved one receives this diagnosis. So, what do you do now, and where do you turn? You don't have to go through this alone.

Key takeaways:
  • arrow-right
    Counseling people with dementia in the early to middle stage of cognitive decline has value in reducing anxiety and depression to improve a sense of well-being.
  • arrow-right
    Talk therapy may be beneficial in the early to middle stages of dementia and tailored to cognitive ability.
  • arrow-right
    A counselor for people with dementia must have education and experience with all stages of cognitive impairment.
  • arrow-right
    People with dementia and their families may benefit from a connection to a counselor and support organization to assist with future planning.

According to the World Health Organization, over 55 million people live with dementia worldwide, and cases are rising daily. It is a significant cause of disability in older adults and the 7th leading cause of death in all diseases.

Your medical practitioner may provide you with literature and other resources. Still, a stack of brochures can be overwhelming at such a stressful time. You may find value in considering a counselor or therapist to partner with you in this journey. A specialist in counseling people with dementia may be the answer for mental health support and health system navigation.

Counseling for mental health support: talk therapy

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, up to 40 % of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease have underlying depression, and people diagnosed with dementia may go on to have significant depression. While antidepressants may be helpful, treatment by a specialized counselor can help people concentrate on their strengths to increase their sense of well-being and ability to cope.

People with early or middle stages of dementia may benefit from talk therapy. However, in the later stage of dementia, a person may not have the concentration level to participate in active talk therapy. In this case, supportive counseling or reminiscent therapy may be more appropriate. A counselor will conduct a thorough intake assessment to develop a treatment plan.

Talk therapies may include:

Psychotherapy: This is a broad range of "Talk Therapies" provided by a mental health professional. A psychotherapist will tailor the treatment plan according to one’s ability and understanding. They will help people understand their thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the disease process. Successful psychotherapy is possible in the early stages of cognitive decline by focusing on one’s strengths and abilities. It helps to reduce anxiety and adjust to changing situations. Professionals once thought that psychotherapy was not beneficial in people with dementia. More recently, studies have shown that psychotherapy has demonstrated more benefits than previously believed.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This type of psychotherapy benefits someone in the earlier stages of cognitive decline. CBT lives in the “here and now” and focuses on modifying thinking and behavioral patterns. Early therapy may improve quality of life by reducing anxiety and depression. CBT is language-based, so it may not be appropriate if cognitive impairment is more advanced and has affected language. Again, treatment sessions can be tailored to each person’s level of cognition to produce the best outcomes.

Supportive counseling: This type of counseling may benefit a person with dementia and their caregivers in all stages of the disease. The practice of reflection and validation in supportive counseling may impact how someone copes with disease progression. Having someone’s feelings validated may improve their sense of well-being.

Reminiscent therapy (RT): RT is a type of talk therapy that benefits those in the early to middle stages of dementia but may also have some value in later stages. The counselor uses conversation to talk about the person’s family history or past career. A counselor conducts regular therapy using sensory props such as photos and music to stimulate pleasant memories. Suppose a person has had trauma in the past; they require ongoing supervision by the therapist throughout therapy. Otherwise, a caregiver can continue with RT in a casual setting at home.

Counseling for support and system navigation

Your community may have support programs connected with organizations such as the Alzheimer's Association. Even though the name states "Alzheimer's," they support people and their families with all types of dementia and early cognitive impairment. For example, a counselor can teach coping skills and assist in navigating a complex health network. The Alzheimer's Association programs may include in-person or group meetings, phone support, or online connection, and most are free of charge. Some of these programs may include:

  1. Early-stage social engagement programs: In the early stages of dementia, it is necessary to remain active and learn new information. Socialization and activity with others provide an avenue for engagement and peer support.
  2. Caregiver support: This program provides support and education for those living with or supporting a loved one with dementia. Support for the caregiver can reduce caregiver stress by providing education and behavioral strategies. In addition, the counselor can assist in system navigation and long-term planning.
  3. Educational programs: These programs cover several topics in all stages of the disease journey. There are in-person, group meetings, and virtual options available.
  4. Online resources: Several free downloadable tools are available to educate and support care-related decisions and connections to your local chapter.

Finding a counselor

Suppose you decide to look for a counselor. Finding one with experience and education in dealing with dementia is essential. A counselor that fits your needs, personality, and budget may take time and trial in your search effort. You may also have coverage through your medical insurer.

Here are some referral suggestions:

  1. Your medical practitioner may provide a referral or a listing of qualified counselors.
  2. Contact your local chapter of the Alzheimer's Association for recommendations.
  3. The American Counseling Association provides several directories to search for qualified mental health professionals nationwide.
  4. Ask for referrals/recommendations from your family, friends, or faith leader.

Professional counselors may include:

  • Psychiatrists.
  • Psychotherapists.
  • Psychologists.
  • Clinical social workers.
  • Marriage and family therapists.

While a diagnosis of dementia can be life-altering, having support early in that journey will directly impact your quality of life. You may decide to search for a private counselor for talk therapy or connect with help from an organization such as the Alzheimer's Association.

In either case, qualified professionals can walk you through this challenging time, reducing stress and anxiety. The Alzheimer's Association in the US has a helpline available 24/7 at 1-800-272-3900.

You don't have to be alone on this journey.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked  


Helen Bell Helen Bell
prefix 4 months ago
Excellent advise and very informative