Dementia is a broad range of brain diseases that result in reduced brain functioning over time. Dementia patients become more forgetful and lose the ability to solve problems, to care for themselves, to speak and to function on a daily basis. There is no cure for dementia, however, dementia patients lives can be improved with proper diagnosis and care that includes the support of family or other caregivers, proper nutrition, regular physical and mental activity, and good medical care.
A major symptom of dementia is memory loss, although memory loss alone does not mean a person has dementia. Dementia patients have other symptoms as well, such as being disoriented or restless. They may experience loss of speech and neglect personal hygiene. Patients may be unable to follow instructions or they may think they are lost. They may forget to eat, be unable to tell what time it is, and they may forget the people closest to them. Dementia may be accompanied by agitation, loss of inhibitions and depression. Dementia patients may imagine things that never happened or have hallucinations. Dementia progresses at different rates in different people and may be more or less severe in different cases.
Dementia is more common as people age, affecting about 10% of the population at some point in their lives and over half of adults over 85. Risk factors for dementia include high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes and obesity. There are different forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s Disease. If dementia is suspected, the patient should see their doctor to determine the severity and stage, and also the type of dementia so that they can begin to receive appropriate care and guidance.
Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 50-70% of cases. Although the cause is still unknown, heredity and age are the most common risk factor for Alzheimer’s.
One of the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s is difficulty remembering things that just happened. Patients may also get lost or have trouble finding words. By contrast, early signs of other forms of dementia may include personality changes and inability to plan and organize.
Family members may notice small behavioral changes during the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Some early warning signs of Alzheimer’s Disease include:
The Alzheimer’s Association provides a helpful checklist for families to use to help their loved one’s doctor determine whether diagnostic tests for Alzheimer’s Disease might be warranted.
Diagnosis Early diagnosis is important to improve your loved one’s quality of life and allow them to participate in decision-making and planning for their future care while they are still able. Early intervention may include medications that can slow the progress of the disease and ease symptoms which can improve and extend the period of good quality of life and make caregiving easier.
Eating Alzheimer’s and dementia patients have trouble eating and swallowing. They may need to be fed their meals by a caregiver. Oral feeding should always be the first choice for the patient’s overall health and wellbeing. In severe cases, tube feeding may be used but it carries the risk of pressure ulcers and requires the patient to be medicated, so should only be used as a last resort.
Activities Staying physically and mentally active helps improve the physical and mental functioning of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients as well as reduce anxiety and loneliness. Help your loved one carry on simple activities that he or she is still able to do. Get into a routine and repeat the activities daily to keep their skills current. For exercise, some light outdoor exercise is good for health and mood, and can help improve sleep patterns. Most dementia patients enjoy the calming effects of the natural environment, so try a walk around the yard or down the block if they’re up to it. Senior centers may offer organized exercise programs where your loved one can participate in a group that enjoys exercising together.
Nighttime Many dementia patients suffer from what has become known as Sundown Syndrome. They become difficult when evening comes, acting agitated and restless. They may refuse food at dinner and resist going to bed. Caregivers can take proactive measures to reduce these behaviors by scheduling exercise and activities early in the day, restricting caffeine, limiting daytime napping and keeping the atmosphere quiet and calm in the evening, including dimming lights and reducing TV and other noises. Keep bedtime the same every night and install nightlights in the bedroom, bathroom and hallway to reduce fear and disorientation in the dark.
Pain Alzheimer’s and dementia patients may experience pain due to other health problems that come with aging, but be unable to express it. Signs a dementia patient may be suffering pain include noisy breathing, groaning or moaning, and facial expressions or body language that indicates discomfort. Others signs might be lack of appetite, depression or sleeplessness although these also occur in dementia. The patient should be seen by a doctor who will prescribe appropriate pain medications if needed.
Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia can be managed when the patient has a strong support team and a long-term plan in place. It’s important for the primary caregiver, and the patient if they’re able, to build a network of support as early as possible. The support team should include doctors, dentist and other medical providers, someone to handle finances, membership in a dementia or Alzheimer’s support group, and a relief caregiver network to help the primary caregiver be able to rest and restore themselves from time to time.
There are many ways to get support for coping with caring for a loved one with dementia, including making arrangements with extended family members, adult day care, outpatient and residential facilities, support groups, religious organizations, community services agencies and referral services and home care providers. Whether for occasional respite care or regular daily care, home care providers can provide flexibility and ease the burden of care while allowing your loved one to stay at home in familiar surroundings. A very important consideration for long-term caregivers is to be sure to care for themselves as well as the patient. Both the patient and the caregiver will benefit.