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4.2 Boost your brain health

Build emotional resilience, be mentally and socially active to boost your brain health

Build your emotional resilience

Living with dementia can be challenging. Emotional resilience is your ability to cope with and recover from challenges. When you have difficult experiences or low points in your life, your emotional resilience helps you to ‘bounce back’ and protect your mental health. This doesn’t mean that you won’t feel upset about changes that happen because of your dementia. However, you can build up your ability to manage despite these difficulties. 

Here are some suggestions to help build emotional resilience:

Do things which have meaning and purpose

Keep doing the things which are important to you. See When dementia gets in the way of a meaningful life  for a worksheet to help you to work out what is important to you in life and identifying therapies and strategies which might help to overcome any barriers.

Some people also find meaning by volunteering in research or working as a dementia advocate.

Join a research study

Potential benefits of participating in research include: 

  • Being able to share your experiences
  • You might get access to new treatments or services which aren’t available elsewhere
  • You can access more information about dementia and therapy options 
  • You are contributing to the research effort 
  • You are helping advance dementia research and therefore helping others with dementia 

To sign up for research

  • Ask your doctor
  • Volunteer through organisations such as the Alzheimer’s Society.  You can join the research network or sign up for different studies 
  • Register your interest in taking part in research by signing up to hear about opportunities at Join Dementia Research.  

 

Become a dementia advocate

Dementia advocates are people who represent and speak for others with dementia. They give their time in a variety of ways:

  • Share their views and experiences about dementia
  • Promote the rights of people living with dementia
  • Provide feedback on new programmes or policies which might affect people with dementia
  • Speak publicly about their dementia, join campaigns or sit on a committee representing the interests of people with dementia.

You might be able to volunteer to become an advocate as part of your local NHS trust – make it known to the clinician or service manager that you’re interested in helping to improve the service. 

The Alzheimer’s Society has a booklet of resources to help you become a dementia advocate.    

You may also be able to join advocacy programmes with organisations such as Age UK.  

You can also join advocacy groups which are set up by people living with dementia.  There are national and local organisations such as TIDE and the Dementia Action Alliance

You can also join international advocacy networks such as Dementia Alliance International.

 

Practice self-care

Self-care means spending time and energy looking after yourself. This can be small everyday things or special occasions.  It might be going on holiday or getting enough rest, getting your hair done, or doing things just ‘for yourself’. Taking care of yourself can boost your mental health and your ability to move forward with dementia. 

Here are some ways to practice self-care:

Be kind to yourself 

Don’t be too hard on yourself. Your ability to do things may have changed because you have dementia. Don’t blame yourself if you don’t do as well as you want to. 

Many people with dementia tell us that they lose self-confidence. You are more likely to lose your confidence if you are hard on yourself. Being kind to yourself can boost your confidence instead.  

Practise your spirituality

Spirituality means different things to different people.  For some, spirituality is about practising their religion.  For others it might be about connecting with nature, the wider world or yourself.  Whatever spirituality means to you, there is evidence that people who belong to a faith community, or practice mindfulness have better mental health. 

Here are some ways you might practice your spirituality:

  • Prayer or worship at home
  • Going to mosque, temple, synagogue, church or another place of worship 
  • behaving according to your faith’s teachings
  • Following religious rituals
  • Meditation or mindfulness
  • Spending time outdoors. 

Mindfulness and mediation are becoming increasingly popular.   Anyone can do it and it can boost your mood.  Find out more about mindfulness at Age UK.

There are apps you can use to practice mindfulness and meditation.  Some are free, Headspace is one example. 

 

Be mentally active

People with dementia can grow new brain cells and connections 

When you are mentally active, there is more blood flow and activity in your brain. Different parts of the brain are activated by different types of mental activity. For example, someone using their memory will have more activity in their temporal lobes, whereas someone working out a problem or planning a meal will have more activity in their frontal lobes. 

When people with dementia exercise their brains (such as by learning new things) they grow new brain cells (neurons) and brain connections. When you play different types of thinking games such as crosswords, visual puzzles like find-a-word or mazes, and logic puzzles like sudoku, you exercise different parts of your brain. When you socialise and talk to different people you exercise other parts of your brain. To exercise your whole brain you need to do a variety of mental activities. If you just do crosswords, you’re only improving the parts of your brain you need for crosswords.

Some therapies for dementia are designed to get people with dementia to practise different types of thinking. See the article Managing memory and thinking difficulties to find out about cognitive stimulation therapy and brain training.  

Use it or lose it!

You might find you have less chance to keep your brain active, especially if you are staying home more, or have stopped doing some things because they are difficult or no longer enjoyable.

It is important that you keep doing things that need mental effort and concentration. It doesn’t matter how ‘hard’ or ‘easy’ the activity might seem. If you’re watching a film and drift off, this isn’t being mentally active. If you’re an expert knitter and can knit without concentrating, then that’s not being mentally active either. 

To be more mentally active, people with dementia recommend the following:

  • Volunteer – help at a community event, or with a local group
  • Learn something new – this might be a craft, using technology, or learning some new facts
  • Do something creative – play music, sing, dance, draw, or crafts
  • Play games and puzzles – play card games, board games, video games, word games, jigsaws
  • Care for others – put effort into planning something nice for someone else.

Be socially active

People who know and spend time with different people (such as family, friends, groups) tend to have better brain health. They often do better on memory and thinking tests too. 

Keep spending time with friends 

Some people tell us that having dementia brought them closer to some of their family and friends. Talking about diagnosis together and receiving support was positive and helped them feel better.

However, others have told us that friends fall away, they stop being invited to events, and some people don’t know how to talk to them. Some people with dementia avoid social situations because they’re worried about how others will treat them, or feel embarrassed. Many people with dementia feel more isolated after their diagnosis. See  Telling others about your dementia diagnosis for suggestions on talking to your friends and family about dementia.

Reach out to friends, even if you’re not usually the person who does the organising. Or, ask a close friend or family member to help you to stay in touch with other friends and family. 

Here are some suggestions which might make keeping social easier:

  • Spend time with people you feel closer to or more supported by
  • Spend time in smaller groups
  • Spend time in quieter places rather than noisy pubs or restaurants
  • If you’re getting tired, take a break. Find a quiet place you can have a moment to yourself
  • Talk on the phone or by video-chat.
  • Write letters, email, or send messages.

Also see Managing difficulties when out for more ideas to help you keep social. 

Join a group or club

A local group or club is a great way to socialise and meet new people.  You can go to groups or you may be able to meet online.  There are lots of different groups, for example:

  • Hobby groups
  • Interest groups 
  • Technology groups
  • Sports groups
  • Walking groups
  • Community groups.

Your local council may be able to help you find groups, or organisations such as Re-engage may also be able to help. 

Join a peer support group

A peer support group means meeting up with other people who have also been diagnosed with dementia.  It is a safe space to share your experiences.  You might be worried that others in the group may not be in the same place you are or don’t have the same experiences as you.  However, people tell us that meeting other people with dementia helped them to cope better and develop new friendships.  It’s a place people can share their stories, and practical tips for living with dementia. 

If you are interested in finding out more about peer support, contact the Alzheimer’s Society to find if there is a local group in your area.

Keep mentally active
Do at least one thing every day that challenges your thinking

Build your emotional resilience
Do things which are meaningful and give you purpose, practice looking after yourself.  Do one thing each day that makes you feel good.

Keep socially active
Meet up with other people every week, or every day.