Getting High with Dementia – Cannabis and Dementia

The legalization of marijuana for recreational use has put the plant in the spotlight over the past year. But the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes in Canada has been established for almost 2 decades now. In July of 2001, Health Canada regulated access to cannabis for medical purposes.

Marijuana leaf

When a person goes to their doctor for a prescription for marijuana, like any other interaction with their doctor, it is completely confidential. The agreement is between the doctor and the patient and the regulating body – Health Canada: Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR). This information is not given to the police, to insurance companies, or to another third party.

Currently, there are 2 main reasons for prescribing cannabis:

  1. For the treatment of symptoms related to compassionate end-of-life care including: pain (ex. from arthritis), muscle spasms (such as those from spinal cord injuries or multiple sclerosis), anorexia, nausea (like that caused by cancer or HIV/AIDS), and seizures.
  2. For the treatment and management of other debilitating symptoms caused by other medical conditions not mentioned above.

So how does this pertain to you?

People living with dementia experience many of the above symptoms as a result of other conditions/illnesses they are living with. For example, look at your loved one’s hands. Brain weedAre they crooked, swollen, and just look painful? They probably are painful. But people living with dementia have a more difficult time expressing that something hurts. Instead of saying “Hey, look at my hands! They are hurting me!”, they may avoid opening doors, picking up their favourite book, or even more injurious, they may stop eating because using utensils is painful.

But you may say, “that’s what Tylenol is for.”

And you’d be absolutely right. Tylenol helps to reduce pain.

Let’s look at another common symptom of someone living with dementia: Anxiety. Many people living with dementia experience anxiety daily, or even multiple times a day. Sometimes you’ll be able to identify why your loved one is anxious and therefore be able to settle them. Other times you won’t be able help at all because their anxiety seems to come out of no where (side note: feelings and reactions/behaviours never come from no where – there is always a reason and it’s our job to figure out what it is. Comment below or send us an email with ). But if you find a pattern, like they always get nervous when going out for a drive, you could help to calm them with cannabis.

But you might say, “that’s what Xanax, Valium or Ativan are for.”

And you’d be absolutely right. Those drugs are anti-anxiety medications.

Let’s look at one more thing cannabis could help with in your loved one living with dementia…Night Time Wandering (side note: “wandering” is a misnomer – people generally don’t walk aimlessly and neither do people with dementia. Whether they are walking because they are bored, looking for their spouse, or soothing the pain in their back, there is always a reason why someone walks. We just label it as “wandering” in people with dementia but that’s not at all accurate. So I’m not going to use the term “wandering” anymore – I will call it how it actually is). A lot of family members worry about their loved one getting up in the middle of the night and leaving the home; getting lost, left out in the cold with no jacket; getting hit by a car; the list goes on. Locking their room might make them feel trapped, and GPS watches are expensive and take a lot of effort to track. Cannabis relaxes and helps to promote sleep.

But you might say: “that’s what sleeping pills and sedative drugs are for.”

And you’d be absolutely right. These drugs are used in people living with dementia for sleep purposes. But be careful with antipsychotics (sedative drug). These are unfortunately used to sedate people with dementia even though dementia is not a psychosis. And these drugs are a host of harmful effects like poorer cognition and brain activity, falls, hospitalizations, fractures, and more.

The research is building, compiling a lot of evidence for the positive effects of marijuana. Of course, there are always negative side effects of using marijuana and every person reacts differently to it – just like any other drug. Talking with your physician and doing your own research will help to determine whether cannabis is right for your loved one and what reactions you can expect.

Let me ask you this:

Do you wrestle with your loved one trying to get them to take their 10 pills every 6 hours during the day? 5 are tablets, 2 are crushed, 2 are liquids, and another is a patch. What do you think about trading some of those in for just one medication? It’s pretty interesting that instead of trying to get your loved one to take 3 different drugs (like Tylenol for pain, Valium for anxiety, and Melatonin for sleep), you could assist them in taking just 1 (cannabis) that helps with many different ailments simultaneously.

“But they don’t smoke, and I don’t want the smoke in my house!” you say. No problem! Cannabis comes in many different formats from smokeable options, to oils, pills and tablets, and edibles such as brownies, teas, cookies, and many more.


Are you ready to try cannabis?


Contact your physician to see if cannabis is right for your loved one living with dementia.