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Dementia care providers need to know how the stages and symptoms of dementia present themselves.
Dementia – once it has been officially diagnosed – does not go away. Some dementia care providers may notice that the symptoms can come and go and the condition can manifest itself differently depending on the person. The symptoms of dementia progress at different rates, and there are different stages of the disease, but it doesn’t ever “go away”.
Dementia progresses rapidly for some people, while it takes years to reach an advanced stage for others. People with “mild dementia” may still be able to function independently, with memory lapses that have a minimal impact on daily life, such as forgetting words or where things are located. These individuals may not require additional assistance, while others may or require extensive daily dementia care,
In short, there is no playbook for what is and isn’t normal in dementia. In some forms of dementia, symptoms may appear suddenly or may come and go. People with dementia can often be very lucid, engage in perfectly normal conversations and seem to not have a problem with memory recall. The next day they are hallucinating and don’t know where they are; they are walking around the house with the dog leash and think the dog is attached but the dog is outside and nowhere near. And then the next day they are doing the crossword puzzle peacefully. This can be challenging, if not maddening, for dementia care providers but should be understood, expected and tolerated.
What We Know About Dementia
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) says that dementia affects approximately 3.4 million Americans, or 13.9 percent, of the U.S. population ages 71 and older and is usually caused by brain damage associated with Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia or Parkinson’s disease.1 And in Canada, the number of people living with dementia is expected to rise 66% by the time we reach 2031.
It is important to differentiate the various types of dementia; for about 70 percent of patients, a diagnosis of dementia will be accompanied by a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, Alzheimer’s and dementia are not one in the same. Dementia is a loss of brain function that refers to a group of illnesses. Although dementia may be a symptom of Alzheimer’s, it may have other underlying causes, such as Pick’s disease, hypothyroidism or head trauma. While Alzheimer’s is the leading cause of dementia, vascular dementia, which is often caused by stroke, accounts for about 17 percent of all dementia cases.1
While people will experience dementia differently, most people with dementia share some of the same symptoms that may come and go. According to the NIH, signs of dementia may include the following in varying degrees based on how far the disease has progressed1:
These wide ranging symptoms are all memory related since dementia is a degenerative disease that causes a progressive decline in cognitive function including memory, attention span, and problem-solving skills.
Before dementia care is considered, remember, not all confusion and memory loss indicate dementia, so it’s important to rule out other conditions. Some signs of dementia may be caused by physical problems versus mental. Urinary tract infections (UTI’s), nutritional deficiencies (vitamin D and/or B-12), dehydration, possible side effects from medication, excessive alcohol consumption, insomnia, changes to routine, or even dental problems can have an effect on cognitive ability. Be aware that if these health issues arise for a person already diagnosed with dementia, it can aggravate the condition.
Dementia should also not be confused with common symptoms of aging like misplacing the car keys or forgetting what you were going to say.
Again, a healthcare professional should be consulted if these symptoms persist or get worse. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance (FCA), a diagnosis of dementia requires a complete medical and neuropsychological evaluation. The full exam allows the doctor to determine whether the patient has dementia and, if so, its severity and causes. From there, the physician can make treatment recommendations and assist the patient and caregivers in planning for the future.
Caregiver Considerations—Tips for Dementia Care
Dementia can be challenging for both patients and caregivers but knowing what to expect can help ease the journey. Caregivers may not be able to anticipate the level of dementia on a daily basis, but they can be prepared to manage the varying symptoms of dementia as they progress.
The different stages of dementia 2 require different degrees of dementia care. With mild dementia, people may still be able to function independently; however, they’ll experience memory lapses that affect daily life, such as forgetting words or where things are located.
People experiencing moderate dementia will likely need more assistance in their daily lives as it becomes harder for them to perform daily activities and self-care. They may hallucinate, get lost easily and forget where they are, and not remember what day of the week it is.
Someone with severe dementia will likely lose their ability to communicate and need full-time daily assistance with tasks such as eating and dressing. They may not remember their own name or the names of others. Physical activity and ability may be seriously impaired (walking, eating, bladder control) and they may be more susceptible to infections, such as pneumonia.
Regardless of the stage of dementia or how challenging it may be as the symptoms come and go, a person with dementia should be respected and treated as normally as possible while ensuring their health, safety and well-being. The more a caregiver can understand what to expect when a loved one has dementia and to accept the often-wavering levels of behavioral change, the more effective and loving they can be during difficult times. And finally, as challenging as it may be, try to maintain a sense of humor about the sillier, harmless things that can happen – like putting the milk in the microwave instead of the refrigerator – and not get upset. When it comes to a loved one suffering from dementia, they truly do not understand the error in what they do much of the time. Be kind and gentle.