Is consuming news media good for those living in aged care with dementia?

When news media broadcast events like conflict, natural disasters, pandemics, and other tragedies reach our screens, it can cause a lot of anxiety and even a sense of hopelessness. For people in aged care and living with dementia, the constant stream of images on the news may cause additional worry and feel overwhelming – perhaps because it brings back personal memories of their own distressing experiences, such as living through previous times of conflict or tragedy.

Here are a few ways you can help look after your own mental health and support the venerable when there isn’t much good news being distributed on our media.

Limit News input

When big news events happen, the 24-hour news cycle tends to be overtaken with distressing images and speculation about what might happen next, which makes it difficult to switch off from what is happening. The constant alerts, interviews and discussions in some instances last all day. While watching or reading the news can help people feel informed, it can also increase anxiety and fear. Limiting how often you check the news will allow you to focus on other things and give you a chance to relax. If you or someone you are supporting with dementia are feeling anxious or afraid, if you don’t want to switch off the news altogether, then it might be an idea to limit how many times you watch or listen to the news, a suggestion would be to check in once a day and avoid speculation wherever possible. We are all guilty of over thinking things and thinking the worse. Listen to calming music and if possible, images that allow the mind to go into its happy place. Think about the good times and how you felt at the time.

Know the links between trauma and dementia

Supporting a person with dementia can be positive and rewarding, but it can also be very challenging. Looking after yourself is important for both you and the person you’re looking after. Dementia itself often brings daily challenges and many people affected by it struggle with anxiety and depression at times. Scenes of traumatic world events could cause such feelings to get worse. While anxiety impacts each person differently, people who have lived through trauma or conflict in the past may find that upsetting old memories or feelings of distress resurface. For people with dementia, whose older memories are often retained, this can make a difficult situation even worse. Time-shifting is something that can happen if exposed to traumatic news media. It is when a person’s experience is that they are living at an earlier time in their life. They may become disorientated and confused about time and place. To understand what is happening in their current situation, the brain uses information from the senses and then interprets it in the context of all the person’s memories – both recent and from the more distant past. Without recent memories, it’s much harder to make sense of what’s going on now. Instead, the brain tries to fill in these gaps with older memories, which tend to be better preserved. This can cause the person to confuse what’s happening right now with events that happened much earlier in their life – they get jumbled up with each other. As a result, there’s a risk that being exposed to news may cause distress to someone living with dementia who is experiencing time-shifting, particularly if they have lived through a similar experience in the past. Try not to dismiss the person’s experiences or simply tell them they’re mistaken. Attend carefully to what the person is saying and doing as this will help you to understand their reality. Listen carefully for the feelings they are trying to express. Acknowledge their worry and explain that you will try to help.

Understand their past

It can help be helpful to speak to the person experiencing time-shifting about their past. Understanding their lived experience may help to understand how they are interpreting the information coming from the news bulletins. It may also help understand questions and actions that seem odd. But be careful: be sensitive, only do this when the time feels right, and stop if it seems to be making the person more upset.

If you or someone you support is struggling with stress or anxiety that is affecting your ability to function properly, or you are feeling very low, then contact your GP or family for advice, remember you are not alone in this feeling.