Finding Joy in Life With Dementia

Feb 9, 2024 | Caregivers

Loving someone with dementia can be so difficult at times. It’s hard to remember on the ‘bad’ days, but they are still capable of feeling love, purpose, fulfillment and joy. The affection that they can show demonstrates how powerful human emotion is, even overcoming cognitive decline.

There is joy beyond the diagnosis, not just gloom, and that’s true for you, your loved one and the entire family.

5 Ways To Find Joy in Life With Dementia

Remember Your Loved One Is Still the Same Person

Elizabeth Landsverk, M.D., a geriatrician and co-author of “Living in the Moment: A Guide to Overcoming Challenges and Finding Moments of Joy in Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias,” says:

“Even while [your loved one’s] abilities are diminishing, they are still an adult.”

Dr. Landsverk says that there’s no one-size-fits-all way to handle dementia. Each family will have to figure out what works best for them and their loved one, keeping in mind that while some things will inevitably change, the individual with dementia is essentially the same person. Someone with dementia is still an adult with feelings, needs and wants just like everyone else. They want to make their own choices about how to live their lives – what to do, what to eat, etc. – even if they aren’t always able to make those decisions. When it comes to accepting dementia and finding joy despite a diagnosis in the family, accepting your loved one for who they are, dementia and all, is the first step. The second is respecting their wishes whenever possible.

Celebrate Love

With Valentine’s Day approaching, it’s a great time to celebrate love. But while the holiday focuses on romantic love, there are all kinds of love. And we’ve seen time and time again that dementia doesn’t change someone’s ability to love. The affection that someone living with dementia can still show demonstrates how powerful human emotion is, even overcoming cognitive decline. We see it all the time here at Sundara. Our residents show warm affection for their visiting loved ones, their fellow residents, visitors and the Sundara team. 

Live in the Moment

One way to find joy in dementia is to live in the moment. It’s not always easy to do so, especially when you’re the 24-hour caregiver for someone with dementia. But it matters when it comes to your happiness and the happiness of your loved one.

Dr. Landsverk says that “many things can bring joy, including focusing on the ‘now’ with loved ones. It’s finding the ability to live in the moment.” It can be difficult to stay positive, but many people say that receiving a diagnosis “helps them appreciate the gift of time and the value of living in the moment.”

And while it’s important to be prepared, dwelling on what the future might hold won’t do any good – and will likely do a lot of harm. Instead, “focus on your strengths and the activities you enjoy in order to live one day at a time.”

Find Joy in Your Day-To-Day Life

Day-to-day life can get repetitive, stressful or even overwhelming for all of us sometimes, but this is especially true for caregivers. The daily tasks of caring for someone with dementia can be tough, and when it’s someone you love, it only makes it harder.

You might think there’s no room for cheer in your life after a diagnosis, but the truth is that you can find “humor and lightness in almost any situation,” and it’s important for caregivers to do so:

“Caregivers must pinpoint the sweet spot between their daily reality and happiness, realizing that happiness and joy are two separate entities. You may not find happiness in the middle of your caregiving day, amid the mundane but necessary tasks. Cooking, cleaning, bathing, and the loads of laundry carted in and out of the laundry room don’t spur you on toward a cheerful heart. However, abiding joy moves us through the difficult days and nights that often accompany caregiving. Finding joy is the challenge.”

It might be difficult to try to find the time to work, keep up with chores and obligations, and care for the rest of your family, all while caring for your loved one (not to mention, trying to take care of yourself!), but it’s critical to look for joy among these day-to-day frustrations and inconveniences.

Ray Burow, a former family caregiver and contributing writer to “Alzheimer’s News Today,” learned that a “cheerful heart takes practice:”

“When caring for my mother, before my feet hit the floor in the morning, I would say to myself, sometimes aloud, ‘This is the day I’ve been given, and no matter what it brings, I will rejoice and be glad in it.’ I often failed this mantra, but I kept trying, and it really helped to make life bearable, even enjoyable, during the caregiving days.”

Redefine Joy

Over your lifetime, it’s likely that a lot has changed. Think back to 20 or 30 years ago. You were probably living in a very different way than you are today. But then maybe you met your spouse, had children or moved to a new place. Maybe you started a new career, or maybe your spouse did. You had to adjust to all those changes and redefine joy for yourself. If living in a house with a backyard was what joy meant to you, but then you had to move to an apartment, did that mean that life no longer held any joy for you?

Of course, having a loved one diagnosed with dementia is different, but rediscovering joy and happiness is just as important as it is with any other life event – even more important.

In her weekly LinkedIn newsletter “Caregiver Conversations,” podcast host Jennifer Fink says:

“Here’s a key: redefine joy for yourself. It’s not just happiness; it’s peace, calm, and the satisfaction of accomplishing tasks. Begin your day with gratitude, cherishing those quiet moments or a breakfast enjoyed together. At night, celebrate your victories, whether it’s tackling your to-do list or giving yourself permission to throw it away.”

When it comes to redefining joy for someone with dementia, Dr. Landsverk suggests that caregivers start with thinking about the things their loved one enjoyed in the past, but remember to not “get stuck there:”

“They may no longer be able to paint pictures, but perhaps they can make collages. Eating out at a restaurant might result in an angry scene, but a picnic could be a lovely substitute … A night at the ballpark might no longer be possible, but maybe walking around the ballpark before a game or engaging your loved one in a game of dominoes with others could be pleasurable.”

Why Focusing on Joy With Dementia Matters So Much

Focusing on joy while living with dementia is so important because your thoughts and feelings don’t just affect you. They also affect your loved one. A University of Iowa study published in the journal “Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology” found that “caregivers have a profound influence – good or bad – on the emotional state” of individuals with dementia.

If you think your loved one can no longer do the things they love, they’ll think so, too. If you always seem annoyed or upset with them, they’ll pick up on that. And if you lack a sense of joy, they’ll notice that, too.

Here at Sundara, we’ve seen people with dementia perform music on instruments they hadn’t played in years. We’ve seen old friends who hadn’t seen each other in decades light up when they met again. Joy is wherever you look, even in individuals with dementia. Even when things seem impossibly hard, try your best to exude joy around your loved one, for your sake and for theirs.

Jennifer Fink says that it’s something she wishes she’d tried more when she was caring for her mother:

“Be joyous around your loved one. Engage them in laughter, reminisce about happier times, or enjoy a light-hearted movie. Remember, they are more than their illness; you are more than a caregiver. Embrace this truth, and you’ll find joy in your unique journey. I really wish I could go back and give this a try.”

The Sundara Difference

Dementia doesn’t have to mean an end to living with joy. Life will be different of course, but people have the amazing ability to adjust. Finding joy after a diagnosis might not come easy, but it’s well worth the effort.

Caregiving comes with so many responsibilities, challenges and frustrations, but it doesn’t have to be that way forever. Stepping out of the caregiver role and back into the role of son, daughter or spouse full-time can do wonders for your relationship with your loved one. When you put your loved one’s care in the hands of professionals, you can focus instead on getting as much joy as possible – for both of you – out of the time you have left together.

If you’re ready to see what life could be like for you and your loved one with some support, we’re here to help. 

To find out more about the joy-focused way of life here at Sundara, schedule your visit online or by calling us at 512-399-5080.