Three Things Everyone Should Know About Dementia

about dementia

What is the definition of dementia?

“Dementia” is not, strictly speaking, a disease. Instead, it is a catch-all term to refer to a group of symptoms typically caused by several other conditions. The umbrella term is often used by medical professionals and commonly includes symptoms like memory loss, intellectual impairment, and memory loss.

Dementia is typically diagnosed by doctors and healthcare staff with expertise in senior health. It is most often assigned to alert adults with impairment in two or more areas of intellectual ability. Often individuals seek consultation and diagnosis from their doctor when their symptoms start to impair their abilities to complete ADLs (activities of daily life).

Some of the most common symptoms of dementia include confusion regarding the time of day or when completing previously habitual tasks; personality changes; increasing difficulty navigating one’s home, neighborhood, stores, or other places which were once familiar; changes in walking gait or speed; increasing forgetfulness; and many more. Dementia can confuse individuals and their caregivers due to its sporadic nature, particularly in its earlier stages. One day a person can seem ultimately “like their old self,” and the next, they can be forgetful, angry, or completely different.

How is dementia diagnosed?

Several medical and psychosocial tests are used to diagnose dementia officially, but the most common way dementia is diagnosed through a complete medical examination.

Such an examination will include a doctor or primary care provider compiling a complete medical history and performing a physical analysis. This exam will consist of physical tests to measure a person’s strength, balance, and coordination. It might also include mental state questions regarding the time of day, the day of the week, the year, and current events. The patient may also be asked to perform various simple math calculations.

Medical tests such as superficial blood draws might rule out possible causes of temporary dementia, like thyroid issues or anemia. A spinal tap, or lumbar puncture, might also be done to check a patient’s spinal fluid for proteins that might indicate the presence of Alzheimer’s Disease. In some cases, doctors might also perform an EEG (an electroencephalogram) to assess electrical activity in the brain or even a CT scan or MRI to look for brain and other central nervous system abnormalities.

How difficult is it to care for someone with dementia?

Dementia can be difficult for individuals suffering from it and their caregivers for many reasons.

Dementia does not often follow any set timeline, although there are different ways of classifying the stages of the condition. Many medical sources estimate how long each step of dementia will last, but those are comprehensive guidelines at best. There are also different causes for dementia, and depending on the grounds, dementia may progress more steadily or follow a “step-down” progression. This means that a patient may function well for a while, then suddenly worsen health and behavior and plateau at that level until another sudden downturn is taken.

In its early stages, dementia can also be challenging to notice and diagnose. Individuals and their family members might just put down memory issues to “regular aging” or struggle with understanding when tasks have to be done for daily living as “just having a bad day.” By the time symptoms worsen to the point of making it dangerous for a person to live and function independently, it might also be too late to reasonably discuss their plans for the future and their increasing needs for individual care with such a person.

Because dementia most often strikes the elderly, it can provide caregiving challenges because it typically occurs alongside other challenges of aging. For example, people with worsening dementia might also have macular degeneration or other conditions that compromise their eyesight; they might have hearing loss; they might have mobility issues; and they might have many complexes that need to be managed with medications and treatments, such as diabetes or heart failure. These multiple challenges can be very tiring for people with dementia and those trying to provide them with the best and safest care.

People with dementia may not only have more physical challenges, like a slower or less steady walking gait, but may also exhibit broad personality changes. This can be very unsettling and difficult to manage for family, friends, and professional caregivers. Another hallmark of dementia is that it can rob sufferers of the understanding that they need help. This can cause them to become combative, abusive, and angry that their loved ones are treating them “like babies.”

Not least, dementia is immensely frustrating for sufferers and caregivers because it is so relentless. People who have it and are in the later stages, suffering from ever-worsening short-term memory loss, will repeat themselves endlessly and eventually become unable to perform their hygiene tasks. This can be both mentally and physically exhausting for caregivers.

When faced with all of these challenges, caregivers and other loved ones must remember that caring for the individual they are not trying to be complicated. They suffer from physical and mental condition that often robs them of their independence and personalities. In addition to remembering that the disease is complex, not the person, caregivers must also do what they can to support themselves.

Early on, caregivers and relatives should contact organizations such as the Alzheimer’s Association, regional eldercare associations, the AARP, and Meals on Wheels programs. If a caregiver has the resources, they should plan to hire respite services or part- or full-time nurses and other companions to help provide breaks when they can step away from the demands of another’s personal care and recharge.

In short, providing care for a person with dementia can be immensely challenging. In addition to learning more about the basics of the condition, it will be essential to remember to treat yourself, as a caregiver, relative, or friend, with compassion and understanding as well.

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