4 Tips to Reduce Anxiety for Someone with Dementia

By Pat Gruber, Volunteer Community Educator, Alzheimer’s Association and Volunteer Coordinator, Chapter Health System

I recently had the great honor to accompany 85 veterans and 85 guardians in the Flight to Honor trip to Washington D.C., to see the memorials and monuments erected in their honor. We were blessed to have four WWII veterans in our company and a handful of Korean War veterans, with the rest being Vietnam War or Vietnam Era veterans. A group of true heroes in my eyes! 

After a long and emotional day for some, viewing memorials and watching the hanging of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, it was time to head back. Once we arrived at the airport, I was charged with the task of getting all unused wheelchairs to the crew loading them down into the cargo area of the plane. 

I noticed a gentleman still seated in the terminal in a wheelchair so I approached him to see if he would need the chair to board the plane or if I could take it. This gentleman reached up and grabbed my arm asking if this was a legit and legal mission we were on or not. I immediately dropped to his eye level and assured him we were on a legit, legal and safe mission. 

His next concern was that he had no documents or papers to show the pilot stating he was part of the mission. I assured him I had already collected everyone’s documents, as the pilot needed them prior to us boarding the aircraft. 

He seemed to settle down and then told me, “I was in the Air Force and we flew some missions that were not on the up and up.” I again reassured this veteran that we were part of a legitimate mission and we were all going to be safe. I promised we would be boarding soon, we would have dinner and arrive back home safely in a short time. 

As I looked up at his daughter, she mouthed thank you so much.  I am unsure at what point in the day his prior service memories were triggering anxiety, but I am glad that I was in the right place at the right time to be able to ease his anxieties as well as his daughter’s. 

Being a trained community volunteer educator for the Alzheimer’s Association gave me the tools and knowledge to be able to focus on the veteran and ease his fears. But what should you do if you encounter a situation like this? 

  1. Meet the person where they are.  This Vietnam veteran was likely in a state of memory and anxiety regarding his service.  I knew the importance of calming his anxiety and making sure he knew he was safe. 
  2. Get to eye level. I knew standing over him could be threatening to him in his anxious moment. Dropping down to my knees to speak to him at eye level was less threatening and more calming in the situation. Meeting him eye to eye as I spoke gave him a level of trust. 
  3. Go along with it. When asked about documents needed for the flight, I knew not to say, “Oh we don’t need documents.” Since the need for documents to fly was real to him, I explained I collected the documents from his daughter to give to the pilot before we could board. 
  4. Never argue. I was able to provide understanding of his concerns and the time he served and missions he flew. Just providing reassurance that what we were doing was safe and legitimate several times seemed to provide the relief and calmness he needed to be able to board the flight home and enjoy the time with other veterans and his daughter in the moment. 

For more information, visit alz.org or call the Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 Helpline at 800.272.3900. 

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