5 reasons they’re watching TV or sleeping all day

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I’ve met a lot of caregivers who make the assumption that their loved ones living with dementia “don’t like to do anything.” 

“No, she just likes to watch TV and sleep all day,” Marie told me. “My mom was always really active…but I guess with her dementia she just doesn’t want to do the things she used to do.”

This really wasn’t true: Marie’s mom, Barbara, did want and like to do things, but she just didn’t realize that she had an option. If you ask someone with dementia if they “want to” do something, you’re probably going to get a “no.” That “no” is most likely because your loved one didn’t understand the question, not because they actually dislike doing activities. 

Here are a few reasons why people living with dementia will sit in front of the TV all day:

  1. They don’t realize that there’s anything else to do. People living with dementia have a hard time taking “initiative” to start a new task: you know this if you’ve ever watched someone transition from brushing their teeth to combing their hair. Starting a new task can be confusing if you aren’t sure of the steps. Just like this, your loved one didn’t realize that there was anything else to do besides watch TV, and they wouldn’t know how to start doing it, either.
  2. They are worried they’ll “do it wrong” if they attempt something new. No one wants to feel stupid, look silly, or seem incompetent. If what you were asking was too complicated, try breaking it down into steps. “First, we are going to paint this birdhouse together.” When it’s done, explain the next step. “Now, we are going to put it outside and sprinkle some birdseed!”
  3. They didn’t understand what you were asking. If you asked someone if they “wanted” to do something, you probably got a “no thanks.” Instead, ask them FOR HELP with the task. I can’t stress this enough: do not ask if they “want to help you” but instead ask, “CAN YOU HELP ME with….” Make them feel necessary and important to the task. You can also just offer a hand. “Here, come with me,” you say.
  4. You were asking them to do something that was too difficult or confusing. Like in number two, break it down into steps. Make it seem like you need them to help you with it. 
  5. They are depressed. Depression and dementia often go hand-in-hand. Fortunately, depression is often quite treatable with the right medication and behavioral interventions like exercise and social activities. Ensure that a physician checks into your loved one’s potential depression.
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Rachael Wonderlin has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of two published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. She owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting company.

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