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Dementia is a general term referring to a mental decline serious enough to get in the way of everyday tasks. Whether in relation to a disease like Alzheimer’s, or an environmental cause such as a lack of vitamins, dementia affects around 47 million people around the world1. The purpose of this eBook is to provide basic facts about dementia and address some common concerns. It will provide useful information on different types of dementia, who is at risk for developing it, and what to do if someone you love is developing dementia.
What is dementia?
Dementia is a syndrome that impairs cognitive function. That means it can affect anything that has to do with the act of thinking. For instance, memory, calculating, orientation, language, and judgment are all cognitive abilities that could be impacted by dementia1. People with dementia may find themselves unable to remember the names, faces, or birthdays of their loved ones. They may find themselves getting lost easily in places that are familiar to them. For these reasons, dementia can be frightening and dangerous to the person who is suffering from it, and stressful to their family and friends.
What are some common causes of dementia?
Alzheimer’s disease is most common condition associated with dementia, with Alzheimer’s patients making up around 60-70% of dementia patients1. Scientists are still working to understand exactly how Alzheimer’s disease begins and how it can be prevented, but they currently understand two of its main features. First, a high number of plaques and tangled fibers develop in the brain2. These are both present in non-Alzheimer’s brains, but Alzheimer’s brains develop more plaques and tangles than is normal. Second, people with Alzheimer’s experience a widespread loss of connections between nerve cells in the brain (neurons)2. This loss of connection between neurons means that it becomes harder for the different parts of the brain to communicate with each other. The damage seems to initially occur in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for forming memories2. This may be why many patients’ early symptoms include a loss of short-term memory. However, as more neurons die, more of the brain becomes affected, leading to more and more severe cognitive impairment.
Other diseases and environmental factors can cause dementia and dementia-like systems. For instance, sometimes having a stroke can cause similar symptoms to Alzheimer’s disease. Certain environmental factors, such as thyroid problems, can also cause dementia-like symptoms. Senior Helpers can help to provide care for your loved ones who are struggling with any of these issues. With a little bit of help from our experienced caregivers using the Senior Gems® method, your loved one who is experiencing dementia can look forward to enjoying a high quality of life.
Who is at risk of developing dementia?
In the case of irreversible cognitive disorders (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia), there may be some factors that can predict a person’s susceptibility to developing dementia.
- Age: Although young people can and do develop Alzheimer’s disease, older people are especially vulnerable. Did you know that the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease doubles every year after age 656? Similarly, the risk of having a stroke nearly doubles each year after age 557. Thus, the risk of developing dementia is significant in the elderly population.
- Genetics: Research suggests that genetics do play a part in who develops Alzheimer’s disease. For instance, people who have a brother or sister with the disease are more likely to have it themselves. Scientists have also identified several specific genes that may make people more susceptible to Alzheimer’s6.
A number of cognitive disorders exist with symptoms similar to those of dementia. When it comes to reversible cognitive disorders, there are environmental factors (such as drug or alcohol abuse, or vitamin deficiencies) that can be modified to make it less likely for one to develop dementia. A doctor can explain in more detail what factors into the onset of reversible cognitive disorders, and whether a loved one is at risk.
What are the symptoms of dementia?
Everyone will experience the symptoms of dementia in their own way. It is especially important for friends and family to monitor their loved ones in order to help identify these symptoms. The early warnings in particular may be hard to notice about oneself, so the help of family, friends, and caregivers is vital to early detection.
Early symptoms of dementia
- Short-term memory loss10: Although a person with dementia may remember things that happened long ago (such as family events and important life achievements), they may have trouble remembering things they did only a short time ago. For instance, they may forget what time they woke up, when they last had a haircut, what they saw on the news, and so forth. In Alzheimer’s patients, the hippocampus (the part of the brain that forms new memories) is often the first area of the brain to degenerate. Thus, this early warning sign is an especially important indicator of Alzheimer’s.
- Difficulty completing routine tasks10: People with dementia may find that it has suddenly become difficult for them to complete routine tasks. Activities such as using a DVD player, playing a board game, or balancing a checkbook may suddenly feel difficult. People with dementia may find that they are forgetting steps in these processes and become frustrated.
- Difficulty speaking and listening10,11: The problems with short-term memory can make it difficult for people with dementia to keep up with a story, whether on a TV show or being told to them in-person. People with dementia may struggle to remember the sequence of events in a narrative they are listening to, or even the meanings of words. This trouble with vocabulary can also make it difficult for people with dementia to communicate. Oftentimes, it takes them some time to think of the right words to communicate their thoughts.
- Misplacing things11: People with dementia may struggle with misplacing things, both because they tend to put things in unusual places, and because they have trouble remembering the short-term well enough to retrace their steps. For instance, a person with dementia may get mixed up while making their morning coffee and accidentally put it on the refrigerator instead of on the kitchen table. They may lack the short-term memory to realize this error, and thus they will have lost their favorite coffee mug.
Later symptoms of dementia
- Significant confusion12: People with more advanced dementia can seem significantly confused. For instance, they may have trouble remembering what year it is, or important details such as their address or phone number. They may believe they currently live at an address that they haven’t resided at for years.
- Dressing appropriately12,13: As dementia advances, it can be a struggle for patients to remember how to dress themselves appropriately. For instance, they may wear clothes that are out of season (such as wearing a heavy coat during the summer, or sandals in winter), or simply put their clothes on wrong. For example, they may put clothing on backwards, or put their shoes on the wrong feet.
Symptoms of severe dementia
- Wandering12: Wandering is a potentially disastrous symptom of dementia. As patients become more and more confused about their surroundings, they lose track of where they are or should be, and can find themselves wandering aimlessly. Patients who wander can find themselves in dangerous situations, such as crossing a busy intersection. They can also become hopelessly lost.
- Long-term memory loss: Patients who are experiencing severe dementia not only have trouble forming new memories, they also begin to lose their old memories. Events such as weddings, graduations, even births, can be erased. One of the most difficult aspects for friends and family can be seeing a loved one lose these memories, and subsequently have trouble recognizing them.
- Serious personality changes: While patients in the early stages of dementia can easily become frustrated due to the difficulties they are experiencing, severe dementia can be accompanied by even more drastic personality changes. For instance, some patients with dementia experience hallucinations, they may see or hear things that are not there13. They may also experience paranoia, for instance they may begin to hide things on purpose because they believe that caregivers are stealing from them10.
What treatment options are available?
Even when it comes to irreversible dementia, there are treatment options available to help slow the progression of symptoms. When it comes to vascular dementia, the name of the game is preventing new strokes from causing any further brain damage. Doctors can prescribe a pharmaceutical regimen for each patient that is tailored to their specific needs to help prevent new strokes15.
Similarly, while there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, there are treatment options available. There are a number of therapies available that are intended to facilitate communication between neurons, thus helping the different parts of the brain to stay in sync16. Doctors and scientists all over the world are currently working to learn more about Alzheimer’s disease so that even more effective treatments can be developed.
While some of this might seem a little bleak, you shouldn’t panic. With new treatments on the horizon and new advances being made every day, people who suffer from dementia are enjoying a higher quality of life than ever before. One reason for that increased quality of life is the growth of caregiving services (like we offer at Senior Helpers), which can and should be an important part of your caregiving regiment.
When your loved one has a Senior Helpers caregiver to help them with their day-to-day tasks, they are able to establish routines that can help to prevent the problems that arise from common dementia symptoms, like confusion and forgetfulness. With our help, primary family caregivers and extended family alike can rest easy knowing that your loved one is safe and comfortable. We take that a step further with our uniquely-designed Senior Gems® program.
The philosophy behind our dementia care is in our Senior Gems® program. This program is unique because it emphasizes what while people suffering from dementia can still do and enjoy. By focusing on the positive, we help to maximize the fun our clients can have each day. We categorize the different stages of dementia by gems, from more independent sapphires all the way to pearls, who need a little extra help getting things done. The metaphor of the gems reinforces our goal to emphasize the unique abilities of seniors across the spectrum of dementia.
Additionally, through the Senior Gems program, our caregivers are trained on an expert level to help them to identify signs and symptoms of dementia, which in turn helps them create the best care and treatment plans for your loved ones that are unique to them, instead of having a cookie-cutter, overarching program that doesn’t address the specific needs of your elderly loved one.
What should I do if my loved one is suffering from dementia?
- There are many great technological tools you can use to help monitor your loved one. These tools can help you monitor phone calls and messages to help stay on top of their communication, and GPS can help you keep track of their location. While no tool can erase all of the problems that come along with dementia, technology can help to reduce the anxiety of being apart from your loved one17.
- Be proactive about medical care. Work with your loved one’s doctor to work out a game plan in case of emergency. Do you know which hospital would be best to go to? Do some research on your area hospitals so that you know exactly where to go in a pinch17.
- Develop predictable routines20. Help your loved one to stay focused by developing a routine with them and sticking to it. For instance, you could call on the phone at the same time each night to talk about their day, or watch a television show together at the same time each day. Developing these routines can help to create stability for your loved one, and thus reduce frustration.
- Don’t go it alone. Caring for someone with dementia can be difficult for family members for many reasons. The constant level of care that a person with dementia can require is difficult for family members to provide, and the emotional toll of seeing a loved one struggle with dementia can be costly. Reach out to Senior Helpers if you’d like to learn more about the services we can provide to help care for your loved one. At Senior Helpers, we are experts in dementia and care for patients with dementia every day. Give us a call at 1-800-760-6389 today to start creating a customized plan for your loved one. Be sure to ask about our Senior Gems® approach to assisting patients with dementia, which celebrates seniors across the spectrum of dementia symptoms.
This concludes our eBook on dementia. We hope that you have found it informative, and have a better understanding of what it means to have dementia. Wherever you are in the process of understanding and coping with dementia, we want to make sure you know you’re not alone. There are treatment options available for every type of dementia, and medical science is advancing every day. At Senior Helpers, we are dedicated to improving the lives of our clients who are coping with dementia every day. We understand how painful it can be for families who are dealing with dementia, and we are committed to easing their burden. Working out a customized care plan for your loved one alongside a treatment program prescribed by a doctor can help to ensure that your loved one will enjoy many safe and happy years to come.