Understand dementia with our guide
We all get a little forgetful sometimes, perhaps because we have too much to deal with or are feeling under the weather. But while it might be natural, especially as we get older, to experience a little memory loss, it isn’t natural to experience changes in cognitive function – memory, reasoning and concentration, for example – that adversely affect daily life. If you or a relative start experiencing regular problems, it is possible you are demonstrating the early signs of dementia.
What is dementia?
Rather than being a disease in its own right, ‘dementia’ is the name given to a group of symptoms associated with a decline in mental function. Dementia sufferers might experience problems with:
- perception, and
When we say that memory loss might be a symptom of dementia, we’re not just talking about forgetting where you put your keys or what you had for lunch – this is a decline serious enough to have an impact on how you live your life.
The most common form of dementia, accounting for around three quarters of cases, is Alzheimer’s disease. The next most common is vascular dementia, which occurs when blood flow to the brain is reduced, possibly following a stroke.
Bear in mind that there are other conditions that can trigger the symptoms of dementia, including problems with thyroid function. As many of these conditions can be reversed with treatment, it’s essential to get things properly checked out.
Six warning signs to watch out for
This is by no means a definitive list, but – especially if a person is over the age of sixty-five – the following points form a useful checklist of things to watch out for.
- Forgetting the names or birthdays of family members or close friends.
- Repeatedly asking the same questions.
- Keeping reminder notes for everyday tasks.
- Forgetting to wash yourself, or clean your teeth.
- Not knowing what day – or even year – it is.
- Not knowing where you are.
- Being unable to differentiate between past, present and future events.
- Misplacing things and accusing others of stealing them.
- Being unable to tell the difference between banknotes with different values.
Struggling to do everyday things
- Not being able to set a TV programme to record.
- Setting out to travel to a familiar destination and getting lost.
- Not knowing how to use (for example) the washing machine.
Making poor decisions
- Being duped by and handing money over to people who knock at the door and say (for example) there’s a problem with the roof that they can fix.
- Letting strangers into the home without first checking their credentials.
Struggling to communicate
- Getting confused over words when speaking or writing.
- Losing track of a conversation and stopping suddenly in the middle of a sentence.
Losing a sense of self
- Withdrawing from the wider world because of the issues above.
- Acting in ways that are out of character.
- Feeling ‘fearful and tearful’ – overly anxious and overly emotional.
Some of these indicators are present … what next?
If you, or someone close to you, are demonstrating any of the above symptoms, the best thing to do is to arrange a doctor’s appointment. It might be something unconnected, such as undiagnosed illness or the side-effects of medication, or it might genuinely be the early signs of dementia. Either way, proper diagnosis and treatment are essential as, whatever the cause, it is best treated sooner rather than later.
Stages of illness
Dementia is often a progressive condition; mild symptoms become more severe over time until they become debilitating.
In the early stages
In the early stages a person might demonstrate some or all of the symptoms mentioned above, although not to the extent that they cannot live a fairly normal life. The important thing is to get things checked out as it may not be dementia causing the symptoms, which means they may be reversible. If it is dementia then an early diagnosis means that although it can’t be cured, it might be possible to slow down the progress of the condition with treatment.
A natural reaction to receiving a positive diagnosis of dementia is shock, but once that has worn off, this is the best time to make your wishes known and put some plans in place. Three things it might be awkward to talk about but that will help enormously over the following months and years are:
- put in place a Lasting Power of Attorney,
- set out the requirements of a care plan, and
- make a will.
Lasting Power of Attorney
A Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) is a legal arrangement whereby you appoint someone you can trust to make decisions on your behalf or look after your affairs for you, should you become unable to do those things for yourself. Generally people appoint a relative, close friend or solicitor.
There are two types of LPA: property and affairs, and health and welfare. You can put either or both in place, but you must do so before your mental capacity declines to the point where you can’t make decisions for yourself (this is covered by The Mental Capacity Act 2005).
A care plan can set out what you would like to happen when you are unable to make your feelings known to others. It can cover such things as what you eat, where you live, and what treatment and medication you will – or would prefer not to – receive.
No matter what your age and state of health, it is a good idea to make a will. It doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive – you can even download forms from specialist websites – but it can ensure that what you want to happen does happen.
In the middle stages
As the condition progresses, issues around memory, communication, perception, cognition and decision-making worsen. Some people hallucinate, and with vascular dementia in particular, there may be a loss of bladder function.
In the late stages
If someone is suffering from dementia in its advanced stages, then they are likely to require round-the-clock care. This may be provided as home care, with a team of carers working in shifts, or in a residential care or nursing home. (See A Guide to Choosing the Right Care Provider.)
Help is at hand
While the initial symptoms might be worrying and a confirmed diagnosis life-changing for all concerned, the good news is that you don’t have to face any of this on your own – help is available. The first step is to get a firm diagnosis, which will be followed by the appropriate treatment and support. This gives those affected the chance to plan for the future and – with the appropriate assistance – to continue to live an active and fulfilled life for as long as possible.
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