How Do I Handle Apathy in My Loved One with Dementia?

Apr 8, 2022 | Caregivers

We all have days when we want to hide at home and do nothing. On those lethargic days, we aren’t very social either. For that moment in time, we resemble the definition of apathetic – showing or feeling no interest, enthusiasm, or concern.

When our loved ones with dementia lose their motivation, it is different. Apathy can set in. It isn’t brought on by a mood, and it isn’t a phase that passes in a few hours or a day.

Caring for the person with apathy in dementia requires extra effort and patience – and this can lead to extra stress for the caregiver. When apathetic behaviors set in, the loved one may have the cognitive ability to engage in self-care or other daily activities that they once participated in, but they simply do not do so without extra support.

Causes of Apathy in a Person with Dementia

Apathy in people with dementia is caused by damage to the frontal lobes of their brain – the area that controls motivation and the ability to plan or sequence actions. The cause of this damage is the condition itself – dementia.

About 50-70% of people with dementia have apathy. Apathetic behaviors are common symptoms of dementia.

Signs of Apathy in a Person with Dementia

Apathy can begin in the early stages of some types of dementia, such as frontotemporal dementia, dementia with Lewy Bodies, or Parkinson’s disease. In some people with dementia, apathy develops over a long span of time, and in a lesser number of people with dementia, apathy may not be obvious at all.

The most common signs of apathy in a person with dementia are:

  • Lacks energy or motivation to complete routine daily tasks
  • Reduced emotional response to good and bad events
  • Diminished interest in conversations or communicating with people (withdrawn)
  • Lacks interest in what is going on around them
  • Diminished desire to partake in activities, and relies on others to suggest and manage activities
  • Lacks concern about their own problems
  • Neglects hygiene and self-care

Differences Between Apathy and Depression

The symptoms of apathy are often confused with depression. Many people with dementia develop depression, but depression and apathy are not the same conditions.

Depression is a medical condition that can be eliminated with self-care and mental management measures. Clinical depression can be treated with counseling and antidepressants. Conversely, prescribed medications, such as antidepressants, or drugs that treat particular symptoms of dementia, can only play a small part in treating apathy.

Treatment for Apathy in Dementia

Treatment for apathy in dementia mostly consists of non-pharmaceutical measures that include enhanced activities, routines, and encouraging support from caregivers, social workers, and family members.

How to Support a Person with Apathy in Dementia

As a caregiver, you know your loved one better than anyone else. You know what brings them joy. You know which activities they love to engage in. You also know what they do not want or cannot do now vs. what they were able to do before apathy made an appearance in their life.

Many people who have dementia do not understand why they feel apathetic, and they may not be aware that degeneration in the brain has taken place. Your role as a caregiver is not about helping them understand the whys of apathy, but to create an encouraging environment that will help them use their cognitive abilities – to develop renewed interest and joy.

Here are some steps you can take to provide support for your loved one:

Where Did They Find Joy?

Consider what activities fulfilled your loved one in the past. For example, they may have enjoyed music, crafts, or preparing food.

Start with Small Activity Steps

Play your loved one’s favorite music at a certain time each day. Choose a craft that your loved one can participate in and introduce it in small actionable steps. If your loved one found joy in preparing foods, for example, start with simple sandwich-making.

As you bring a favorite activity back into your loved one’s life, do so in tiny steps to diminish confusion and discouragement.

Talk About the Past and Create New Experiences

Help your loved one reminisce over their favorite memories. Make a running list of the memories that they enjoy the most and help to encourage joy by regularly talking about them.

Create new experiences that involve being near or visiting others. Visit the grandchildren, a family member, or a good friend. Engage your loved one in social activities for people with dementia, such as these in the Austin/Round Rock, Texas area.

Break Tasks Down into Smaller Steps

Routine is always important in caregiving and especially to a person with dementia – even more so for those experiencing apathy.

Break routines and tasks down into smaller steps. For example, instead of reminding your loved one that they need to brush their teeth, break it down to one step, “It is time to brush your teeth. I will get the water running and I will put the toothpaste on the brush.”

This provides both a gentle reminder that self-care and hygiene are necessary, and as you verbally list the steps involved you give that little nudge, “This is what you can be doing.”

As you eliminate steps in self-care that might cause confusion and discouragement, you create a sense of achievement in your loved one, “I did it, and I want to do it again!”

Provide Positive Feedback

Your loved one with apathy may seem as if they do not care what you think – but they do, indeed, notice your words, your tone, and your gestures.

Your patience is required as you provide positive feedback. Focus your verbal and gesturing feedback on the things that your loved one can do, rather than the entire process, to cultivate rewarding experiences.

Your role involves setting up strategies that help your loved one engage in activities that they are cognitively able to participate in, but also activities that will spark joy as well as a sense of achievement. Your support will help them to feel rewarded and accomplished after the smallest of steps.

We Are Here to Help

Whether you a looking for memory care for your loved one in the Austin/Round Rock, Texas area, or perhaps you are interested in Respite Care, we are here to help you.

You can contact us by phone or email or make an appointment online. Your questions are welcome!