Most people know someone who is affected by dementia, either directly or indirectly. With over 5 million active cases of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias in the United States, this progressive brain disorder is a common challenge for its sufferers and their families and the problem is growing at an alarming rate. According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control, researchers expect the number of people living with the condition to double by 2060, and that estimate includes up to 3.3 percent of the U.S. population. Because of dementia’s growing prevalence, it’s important to be able to recognize the signs of dementia and know what it takes to care for someone who has it.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning that results in behavioral changes to the extent that it interferes with a person’s ability to carry out normal daily activities and self-care. It is a brain disorder that impacts thinking, memory, and reasoning, causing a wide range of problems, such as loss of language skills, difficulties with problem-solving, and interference with visual perception. You may notice a change in your loved one’s personality, as they are unable to focus, control their emotions, or maintain their usual interests.
While Alzheimer’s disease is the most common and commonly-known form of dementia, it is only one of several types -- each classified by the biological changes happening in the affected person’s brain. No matter the type, it is a progressive condition that develops over time, and though there are treatments that slow the progression, there is no cure.
How to Recognize Dementia
Depending on the presenting symptoms, dementia can sometimes be misdiagnosed as depression, a psychiatric disorder, Parkinson’s disease, or another medical condition. On the other hand, some treatable health issues often mimic dementia, resulting in misdiagnosis of conditions such as stroke, infection, side effects of medicines, hormone disruptions, vitamin deficiencies, and vascular, liver, or kidney disease.
Proper diagnosis and treatment can slow progression and prolong the lifespan of a person with dementia, so it is important to recognize signs of dementia early and ensure they see a doctor right away.
Early Signs and Symptoms of Dementia:
- Forgetting recently learned information
- Difficulty doing familiar tasks
- Often misplacing and losing items
- Difficulty following directions or plans
- Trouble with problem-solving
- Difficulty keeping track of time
- Forgetting where they are or how they got there
- Difficulty with visual cues, such as judging distance or colors
- Losing track of what they are saying in a conversation
- Worsening grammar, spelling, or punctuation
- Poor judgment or decision-making
- A decline in personal hygiene
- Mood swings or inability to manage emotions
- Personality changes
- Becoming withdrawn or uninterested in socializing
- Loss of interest in hobbies
If you notice any of these symptoms or a combination of them, it could be time to see a doctor.
How to Care for Someone with Dementia
When dealing with dementia, families, and caregivers typically face tough challenges. Caring for someone with dementia can be expensive, time-consuming, and stressful, so it’s important to remember to take care of yourself first so you can be there for them and also maintain your own wellbeing.
Start by knowing that you cannot change the person’s behavior and you do not have the power to control them or the disease. Instead, do your best to support and accommodate their behavior, even when it is frustrating. You’ll almost always have a better outcome when you reconsider how you respond to their unwanted behavior and adapt to the situation. Keep in mind, when the person with dementia is doing something it always has a purpose you may not have considered. Their actions are often helping them feel more in control when they are trapped in an uncontrollable and frightening circumstance.
Your job is to meet them where they are and support their needs, not push back or argue.
- Go into each interaction with a positive tone and mood, using a calm or upbeat voice and neutral body language.
- If they seem upset or agitated, redirect their attention or distract them with a different subject.
- Speak at a slow pace, using simple and direct words.
- Give clear simple instructions, one step at a time.
- Repeat yourself or rephrase what you’ve said until they understand.
- Be as specific as possible, avoiding vagueness, pronouns, and abbreviations.
- Ask simple, closed-ended questions with limited answers.
- Listen for meaning and feeling to try to anticipate what they are trying to say and gently guess when they struggle to recall words.
- Focus on nostalgic subject matters that emphasizes their long-term memory, which is typically stronger than their short-term memory. In other words, talk about “the good old days” and engage when they light up.
- Avoid reminding them that they are repeating themselves -- that they just asked the same question or told the same story.
As the disease progresses, care will become even more challenging.
- If they need help dressing, make sure they have clothing that is easy to put on and take off.
- If they need help bathing or using the bathroom, find a routine that helps them feel supported and less anxious.
- As they start forgetting to eat, make sure their nutritional needs are met and keep in mind that their tastes will probably change. Whenever possible, keep them company during mealtime and remember that table manners are no longer a priority.
- If restlessness or worsening behavior in the evening becomes a problem, create a calming and structured nighttime routine.
- Wandering can be dangerous, so don’t hesitate to install a home security system and childproof locks for their protection. Make sure they have an identification bracelet and identification tags on their clothes and notify neighbors and police to look out for them.
Overall, there is a real possibility that dementia will affect a family member or someone you love. Recognize that your patience is going to be stretched and tested. It’s okay if you find your loved one's behaviors annoying or aggravating. Pace yourself, learn about the disease, join a support group, get as much help as possible, and do the best you can.
Keep in mind, when someone has dementia, some of their behavior might become disturbing, distressing, and even threatening, paranoid, lewd, or dangerous. Remember, their actions are caused by the disease and it’s okay to seek help from other family members, home care aids, nurses, and senior living facilities with specialized memory care.