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Supporting people with dementia during distressing news events

Our advice here sets out support available from Alzheimer’s Society for people affected by dementia struggling with the news, and how you can help look after your own mental health.

When news events like conflict, natural disasters, pandemics and other tragedies reach our screens, it can cause a lot of anxiety and even a sense of hopelessness.

For people living with dementia, the constant stream of images on the news may cause additional worry and feel overwhelming – perhaps because it brings back personal memories of their own distressing experiences, such as living through previous times of conflict or tragedy.

Here are a few ways you can help look after your own mental health, and support available from Alzheimer’s Society.

1. Limit news intake

When big news events happen, the 24-hour news cycle tends to be overtaken with distressing images and speculation about what might happen next, which makes it difficult to switch off from what is happening. 

While watching or reading the news can help people feel informed, it can also increase anxiety and fear. 

Limiting how often you check the news will allow you to focus on other things and give you a chance to relax.

If you or someone you are supporting with dementia are feeling anxious or afraid, if you don’t want to switch off the news altogether, perhaps check in once a day, and avoid speculation wherever possible.

2. Take care of your mental health

Dementia itself often brings daily challenges and many people affected by it struggle with anxiety and depression at times.

Scenes of traumatic world events could cause such feelings to get worse.

While anxiety impacts each person differently, people who have lived through trauma or conflict in the past may find that upsetting old memories or feelings of distress resurface.

For people with dementia, whose older memories are often retained, this can make a difficult situation even worse.

If you or someone you support is struggling with stress or anxiety that is affecting your ability to function properly, or you are feeling very low, then contact your GP for help. Or if you’re feeling lonely and would welcome a chat, call our support line to arrange for someone to call you back.

The NHS ‘Every Mind Matters’ website has more information and tips for coping with stress and anxiety while at home. Our general advice on anxiety may also be helpful.

3. Supporting someone experiencing time-shifting

Time-shifting is when a person’s experience is that they are living at an earlier time in their life. They may become disorientated and confused about time and place.

To understand what is happening now, the brain uses information from the senses and then interprets it in the context of all the person’s memories – both recent and from the more distant past.

Without recent memories, it’s much harder to make sense of what’s going on now.

Instead, the brain tries to fill in these gaps with older memories, which tend to be better preserved. This can cause the person to confuse what’s happening right now with events that happened much earlier in their life – they get jumbled up with each other.

As a result, there’s a risk that being exposed to news may cause distress to someone living with dementia who is experiencing time-shifting, particularly if they have lived through a similar experience in the past.

Listen to their reality

Try not to dismiss the person’s experiences or simply tell them they’re mistaken. Attend carefully to what the person is saying and doing as this will help you to understand their reality.

Listen carefully for the feelings they are trying to express. Acknowledge their worry and explain that you will try to help. 

Understand their past 

It can help be helpful to speak to the person experiencing time-shifting about their past. Understanding their lived experience may help to understand how they are interpreting the information coming from the news bulletins.

It may also help understand questions and actions that seem odd. But be careful: be sensitive, only do this when the time feels right, and stop if it seems to be making the person more upset.

4. Support services from Alzheimer's Society

Alzheimer’s Society is here for you, whatever your question. We can answer queries about all aspects of dementia and offer advice and support for all associated challenges, including dealing with anxiety and overwhelm.

If you need additional advice or support, we are here for you. 

Dementia Connect support line
Our dementia advisers are here for you.
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6 comments

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How can I tell which stage of Alzheimer’s my husband is exhibiting. Are the 4 stages of Alzheimer’s discussed or laid out somewhere. He has lost all of his short term memory and he forgets our grandchildren’s names.

Hello Lela, thanks for your comment.

We'd strongly recommend calling our support line on 0333 150 3456 to speak with one of our trained dementia advisers. They will listen to your situation with your husband and provide specific information, advice and support. You can find more details about the support line (including opening hours over the Easter Bank Holiday weekend) here: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/dementia-connect-support-line

You may also benefit from joining our online community, Talking Point, where people affected by dementia can share their experiences. You can browse the conversations within the community or sign up for free: https://forum.alzheimers.org.uk

In the meantime, it can be helpful to think of dementia progressing in three stages - early, middle and late stage. We have lots of information on our website about the progression and stages of dementia: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-dementia/symptoms-and-diagnosis/how…

This is available to download as a PDF factsheet: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/sites/default/files/2019-09/458lp-the-pro…

You can request a hard copy in the post through our online form (https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/form/order-free-publications) or by calling our support line.

We hope this helps for now - and remember to call the support line on 0333 150 3456 if you need someone to talk to, or if you would like more dementia information from Alzheimer's Society.

Alzheimer's Society website team

My wife is British and we are living in South Africa. She has a neurological illness which may be dementia. Our son lives in the UK and I need to get her back to the UK. How can I convince her to go with me?

Hello Emil, thanks for getting in touch.

There is a lot for you and your wife to think about here, and it’s hard for us to comment without knowing more about your situation and your wife’s symptoms and diagnosis.

It may be helpful for you both to discuss things with the professionals involved in your wife’s care and other family members.

Our PDF factsheets on Communicating (https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/sites/default/files/2020-03/communicating…) and Understanding and supporting a person with dementia (https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/sites/default/files/2019-03/Understanding…) might be useful for you, but please bear in mind that all our publications are intended for people affected by dementia.

The same goes for our services although you are welcome to talk to our Dementia Connect support line advisers if you wish. They can provide dementia information and advice on 0333 150 3456.

There is also Alzheimer's South Africa, which you may already know about: https://alzheimers.org.za/ They are separate from us but may be able to help with information about support where you are.

For practical things to consider on any return to the UK (such as access to services and benefits) this factsheet from Age UK may be useful for you and your wife: https://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/factsheets/fs25_…

We hope this helps for now.

Alzheimer's Society Knowledge Officer

Puedes convencerla intercambiando con ella recuerdos gratos que paso con su hijo, y con mucho cariño decirle que el la extraña, por lo que es necesario ir a visitarlo. Dile a tu hijo que le escriba una carta cariñosa, pidiéndole que viaje donde esta porque la extraña mucho, que adjunte una foto de él.

Would it help if you asked your son to particularly ring her and ask her to come? That would work in my family!

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