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3.12 Dealing with symptoms in public

Supporting someone with activities outside the house

Staying engaged in life 

Care partners have told us that it can be easy for the person with dementia and themselves to become socially isolated. Concerns about how they will manage transportation, manage money, communicate, and even manage public washrooms can all be reasons why you may not want to go out.  

It is normal to anticipate problems when going out in public. However, if your concerns stop you or the person with dementia from engaging in activities, this can lead to social isolation.  

One care partner suggested that you can pay attention to the ‘what if’ questions that you are worried about. These might include: 

There are some steps you can take to address these ‘what if’s’ and keep up with friends, family, and activities. Social contact has been proven to boost your physical and mental health! 

What if they say or do the “wrong thing”

It is common to worry about the person living with dementia saying or doing the ‘wrong thing’ public. Your concerns may include things like forgetting names, losing the thread of a conversation, mistaking someone for someone else, or misinterpreting things, such as who is next in line to be served. These situations, and more, will occur. The best strategy is to be prepared to cope with them.

Care partners have told us that it is important to accept the fact that mistakes occur. Correcting a person with dementia (when not asked) can embarrass them and may worsen the situation. Stress is contagious. If you get stressed, the person with dementia will probably become stressed. This can cause a situation to get worse. 

Kate finds that honesty is the best policy. When things go sideways in public, she or her husband Cliff will say

It’s early Alzheimer’s, it can be a bother sometimes”.

She goes on to say that almost everyone has a family member who has, or has had dementia. Once they share that information, most people will understand. 

Brad said that he tries to laugh when things go wrong

“I just try to make light of the situation and that breaks the tension”. 

Prepare for situations that you know will cause difficulty if possible.  

Shirley has been going to the same tennis group for 30 years, but now she finds she has difficulty recognizing faces.

Her tennis friends were happy to wear name tags which avoided potential embarrassment for Shirley.  

What if other people don’t understand

It is impossible to predict how a person will react to being told that a someone has been diagnosed with dementia. Some people will respond with optimism while others may not respond with the same level of support. The following page, called sharing the diagnosis with family and friends offers ideas on how to tell other people about the diagnosis.  However, it is up to the person with dementia to decide who to tell and how to tell them.  

Alex decided that going out in public and doing things he enjoys is more important than the occasional odd look or comment from other people. In difficult situations he says,

I take a couple of deep breaths, and if I need to, I just walk away from the situation”. 

Consider talking to the person with dementia about having a buddy. A buddy could be a friend who they normally do things with, who understands dementia and has the confidence to gently step in if required.

Watch this video about dealing with other’s reactions 

Some people, even long-term friends, may not cope well with the diagnosis. Many care partners have told us that while some friends stay, others fall away. You may find that you make new friends. This might happen in dementia friendly groups such as care partner support groups, or by reconnecting with an acquaintance who is going through a similar situation.  

In some communities, there is a ‘dementia friendly movement’. One example is in Calgary, Alberta, where several businesses are dementia friendly. Read more here.

What if they get lost?

Navigation, especially in new locations, can be very challenging for people with dementia. There are ways to help:  

  • If the person with dementia owns a smartphone, they can use a map app to navigate while walking or driving. You can help them to practice giving voice activated commands with the smartphone. For example, on an iPhone, the verbal command “Hey Siri, take me to the grocery store” will prompt the device to show directions via a map on the screen.  
  • Recommend that they use their smartphone to take a photo of where they parked the car, catch the bus, or the entrance the shopping mall.   
  • Ken found it difficult to find his way around his new retirement community. He enjoyed going for walks but hated having to ask his wife to go with him every time. Ken found that walking their dog just before the dog’s dinnertime was a reliable way to get home by a particular time. Their dog knew the route and guided him along.  
  • Make sure that the contact details of a couple of family members/friends are in the person with dementia’s wallet or purse. 
  • Have a “dementia card” ready when asking for assistance; it can avoid giving long explanations.  
  • Practice getting to and from frequently visited places. 

A practical note about washrooms

  • Some people, even in the early stages of dementia, have difficulty interpreting the stick figure signage for ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ washrooms.
  • If this is the case, practice recognizing the ‘wheelchair’ sign instead. This way, the person with dementia can use the wheelchair accessible washrooms which are often unisex, and will have room for another person to assist if needed

Try some of the strategies

  • Write down and try some suggested strategies for when you are out in public. Or, print this page and highlight the ideas you like.