These days almost everyone knows someone who knows someone who is living with Dementia or Alzheimer’s. It’s quite shocking and worrisome when you first find out a loved one has the symptoms. How do you deal with helping someone with either?
When a person with dementia finds that their mental abilities are declining, they often feel vulnerable and in need of reassurance and support. The people closest to them including health and social care professionals, friends and family – need to do everything they can to help the person to retain their sense of identity and feelings of self-worth. It’s very important that people with dementia are treated with respect. It is important to remember that a person with dementia is still a unique and valuable human being, despite their illness.
The person with dementia needs to feel valued for who they are now, as well as for who they were in the past. There are many things that the people around them can do to help, including:
- trying to be flexible and tolerant
- making time to listen, have regular chats, and enjoy being with the person
- showing affection in a way they both feel comfortable with
- finding things to do together, like creating a life history book.
What exactly is Dementia?
Dementia is an overall term for a set of symptoms that are caused by disorders affecting the brain. Symptoms may include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language, severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. A person with dementia may also experience changes in mood or behaviour.
The Dementia/Alzheimer’s Connection
Many people use the words “dementia” and “Alzheimer’s disease” interchangeably. However, they’re not the same thing. You can have a form of dementia that is completely unrelated to Alzheimer’s disease. Although younger people can develop dementia and/or Alzheimer’s disease, your risk increases as you age. Still, neither is considered a normal part of growing older.
Dementia Is a Group of Symptoms
Dementia isn’t a disease. It’s a group of symptoms that affect mental tasks like memory and reasoning. Dementia can be caused by a variety of conditions, the most common of which is Alzheimer’s disease.
As dementia progresses, it can have a devastating impact on the ability to function independently. It’s a major cause of disability for older people, and places an emotional and financial burden on families and caregivers.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says that 35.6 million people around the world are living with dementia.
Signs of Dementia
Early symptoms of dementia can be mild and easily overlooked. It often begins with simple episodes of forgetfulness. People with dementia have trouble keeping track of time and tend to lose their way in familiar settings.
As dementia progresses, forgetfulness and confusion grow. It becomes harder to recall names and faces. Personal care becomes a problem. Obvious signs of dementia include repetitious questioning, inadequate hygiene, and poor decision-making.
In the most advanced stage, dementia patients become unable to care for themselves. Time, place, and people become more confusing. Behavior continues to change and can turn into depression and aggression.
Causes of Dementia
Dementia is a problem of the brain that you’re more likely to develop as you age. Many conditions can cause dementia, including degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s. According to the Cleveland Clinic, Alzheimer’s disease is responsible for 50 to 70 percent of all cases of dementia. Infections such as HIV can trigger dementia. So can vascular diseases and stroke. Depression and chronic drug use are other possible causes.
In some cases, treating the condition that causes dementia may help. Conditions most likely to respond to treatment include dementia caused by drugs, tumors, metabolic disorders, and hypoglycemia.
In most cases, dementia cannot be reversed. However, many forms are treatable. The right medication can help manage dementia, including dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia patients can also benefit from supportive services from home health aids and other caregivers. An assisted living facility or nursing home may be necessary as the disease progresses.
Alzheimer’s Is a Disease
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease of the brain that slowly impairs memory and cognitive function. The exact cause is unknown and there is no cure.
The National Institute of Health estimate that more than five million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s disease. Although younger people can (and do) get Alzheimer’s, symptoms generally begin after age 60. The time from diagnosis to death can be as little as three years in people over 80 years old. However, it can be much longer for younger people.
The Alzheimer’s Brain
Damage to the brain begins years before symptoms show. Abnormal protein deposits form plaques and tangles in the brain of someone with Alzheimer’s disease. Connections between cells are lost and they begin to die. In advanced cases, the brain shows significant shrinkage.
It’s impossible to diagnose Alzheimer’s with 100 percent accuracy while a person is alive. The diagnosis can only be confirmed during an autopsy, when the brain is examined under a microscope. However, specialists are able to make the correct diagnosis up to 90 percent of the time, according to the NIG.
10 WARNING SIGNS:
To help you know what warning signs to look for, the Alzheimer Society has developed the following list:
- Memory loss that affects day-to-day function
It’s normal to forget things occasionally and remember them later: things like appointments, colleagues’ names or a friend’s phone number. A person with Alzheimer’s disease may forget things more often and not remember them later, especially things that have happened more recently.
- Difficulty performing familiar tasks
Busy people can be so distracted from time to time that they may leave the carrots on the stove and only remember to serve them at the end of a meal. A person with Alzheimer’s disease may have trouble with tasks that have been familiar to them all their lives, such as preparing a meal.
- Problems with language
Everyone has trouble finding the right word sometimes, but a person with Alzheimer’s disease may forget simple words or substitute words, making her sentences difficult to understand.
- Disorientation of time and place
It’s normal to forget the day of the week or your destination — for a moment. But a person with Alzheimer’s disease can become lost on their own street, not knowing how they got there or how to get home.
- Poor or decreased judgment
People may sometimes put off going to a doctor if they have an infection, but eventually seek medical attention. A person with Alzheimer’s disease may have decreased judgment, for example not recognizing a medical problem that needs attention or wearing heavy clothing on a hot day.
- Problems with abstract thinking
From time to time, people may have difficulty with tasks that require abstract thinking, such as balancing a cheque book. Someone with Alzheimer’s disease may have significant difficulties with such tasks, for example not recognizing what the numbers in the cheque book mean.
- Misplacing things
Anyone can temporarily misplace a wallet or keys. A person with Alzheimer’s disease may put things in inappropriate places: an iron in the freezer or a wristwatch in the sugar bowl.
- Changes in mood and behaviour
Everyone becomes sad or moody from time to time. Someone with Alzheimer’s disease can exhibit varied mood swings — from calm to tears to anger — for no apparent reason.
- Changes in personality
People’s personalities can change somewhat with age. But a person with Alzheimer’s disease can become confused, suspicious or withdrawn. Changes may also include apathy, fearfulness or acting out of character.
10. Loss of initiative
It’s normal to tire of housework, business activities or social obligations, but most people regain their initiative. A person with Alzheimer’s disease may become very passive, and require cues and prompting to become involved.
For information on diagnosis, see Getting a diagnosis: Finding out if it is Alzheimer’s disease.