Recently, Teepa Snow found herself in unexpected company. The occupational therapist, who specializes in dementia care, started making TikToks that featured helpful tips for caregivers. Soon her TikToks joined the ranks of other viral trends, such as dances, challenges and makeup tutorials. She was stunned to learn she had racked up thousands of views in a very short time period.
“When somebody said you’ve got to try TikTok, I was like, ‘You know guys, I don’t really sing and dance that much so I’m not thinking this is my medium,’” Snow, the author of the book "Understanding the Changing Brain: A Positive Approach to Dementia Care," recalled to TODAY. “So we did it and within a few days we were up to 30,000 to 40,000 views and I’m like, ‘Well this is crazy.’”
But to outsiders, Snow's success on social media isn't all that surprising. Caregivers in the United States are desperate for ways to help their loved one with dementia. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 16 million Americans serve as caregivers for people with dementia. The most common forms of dementia include Alzheimer's disease, frontotemporal dementia, Lewy body dementia and vascular dementia, according to the National Institute on Aging. Nearly a fourth of these caregivers are what’s more casually referred to as “sandwich generation” providers, people who care for both an elderly family member and children under 18. Many have little idea how to properly support and interact with people with dementia. That’s where Snow’s TikToks come in: She demonstrates a variety of skills, everything from how to help someone with dementia get dressed to how to have better conversations.
“There are very few people out there who are talking about this,” she said. “People ask, ‘How can I help my mom stand up?’ And it’s like, ‘OK let’s look at what her abilities are and what you’re trying to do and let’s figure out how this could match up.’”
Some TikToks focus on boosting communication skills that also help caregivers manage their loved ones’ tasks. She encourages people to use warm tones, slower speech and visual aids to bolster discussions.
“Tone of voice and rhythm of speech are things that people living with dementia keep (mentally) and so how we say what we say and how we look when we say it (helps),” Snow explained.
Say a caregiver wants to encourage their loved one to drink something and go to the bathroom, Snow recommends that people say their family member’s name to get their attention before warmly asking if they want a drink. Using a visual aid also helps.
“I show you a coffee mug and I point to it and say, ‘Something to drink?’” she said.
She added that she might even pretend to drink from it.
“I give the visual and then the verbal and there’s a question mark on the end of it,” she said. “I pause. I want to wait for a three count to see if you say something.”
If the person says "yes,” people should follow up with the question “hot or cold?” to glean more information. Then gesture and ask them to join the caregiver in getting the drink. While the question is about offering a person a drink, Snow said that using this method allows a caregiver to encourage so much more from their loved one.
“What I really wanted to do is get you up out of the chair that you were sitting in for the last two hours. But I had to give you the reason for getting up and it was something that I think you might enjoy,” she said. “Along the way we’re going to the restroom. So the communication is a shortened version of something I think you might want to do, to get you hooked, and then I keep in mind my agenda, which is to get you moving, take you to the bathroom, get you hydrated.”
Snow even has tips for how to handle conversations with people who often repeat the same stories over and over. She suggests that people become familiar with the few stories their loved one repeats over and over and think of questions to ask about it that moves the topic from that too familiar story. That allows a caregiver to chat with their loved one who might struggle with memories. People with dementia reshare stories to feel close to their loved one.
“Every time you’re with me, you want to connect to me and so you keep telling me the story because if you don’t have the story, you’re afraid we won’t stay connected,” Snow said. “What is she really telling me? ‘I need to have purpose. I want to be important and I want to have a value and I’m lonely and I’m thinking that this story is something that I did that I felt good about.’”
For people who want more support, Snow recommends caregivers ask their family members’ doctors for a referral to occupational therapy with someone who specializes in dementia care. Caregivers greatly need help to continue to care for their loved ones.
“People are trying some things that we’ve suggested … and they’re finding success,” Snow said. “We have such stressed out carers that it’s really tragic because what’s going to happen is we’re going to lose them. We’re going to lose them as carers. We’re going to lose them as providers. We are going to lose them as family members.”