My loved one is so forgetful, could it be dementia?
This is a common question in the surgery. People become worried about their own or their loved one’s memory and fear that it may be more than simple forgetfulness.
And, with dementia now affecting around 850,000 people in the UK and one in six people over the age of 80 getting the disease, it is a very real fear.
So, how do we know the difference between normal absentmindedness and the onset of dementia?
In the early stages a person with dementia does just seem forgetful. But then which of us isn’t forgetful? Don’t we all walk into a room from time to time and forget what we went there for? Don’t we all forget an appointment sometimes, or have lapses in concentration?
At the start it is easy to see the memory losses of someone with the early stages of dementia as just normal forgetfulness. But over time, their difficulties will become harder to ignore.
You may find them asking the same question over and over, with no recollection that they have already asked it. They may become repetitive, having the same conversations again and again, while being completely unaware of the fact.
They will know that their memory is not what it was, as will those around them, but a collective denial often sets in. Nobody wants to admit they have dementia and nobody wants to accept that their loved one has it either. People find ways to work through the muddle and often don’t seek help until the disease is quite advanced.
But you will know the difference between normal everyday forgetfulness and the type of memory loss that could indicate dementia or another medical condition. And, it is always best to seek medical help. While there is little that can be done to treat dementia, it is important to get support in place to help you cope. And, it may not be dementia. There are other conditions that can cause memory loss that can be treated, so always visit your doctor if you are concerned.
If it is dementia, what happens next?
Depending on the type of dementia – there are many, with Alzheimer’s being the most common – symptoms will worsen gradually or in steps. Sudden changes are usually caused by mini strokes – common in those with vascular dementia.
Uncharacteristic behaviour and personality changes often become apparent as the disease progresses. Although the person themselves will likely be unaware of these changes, this is a particularly hard stage for family and friends.
Behaviour often becomes child-like and inappropriate, and can be accompanied by temper outbursts.
Dealing with groups of people becomes increasingly difficult for the person with dementia. They will lose the ability to follow conversations and can become withdrawn. This can be an extremely upsetting time as it is likely they will be aware that they cannot join in as they once could.
Social isolation for both the dementia sufferer and their main carer can be a real danger at this point. Friends often cannot cope with the changes and don’t know how to react, so keep away. The person with dementia may not want to socialise because he is finding it difficult. And the main carer may feel it is easier if they just keep to themselves.
But good support and understanding is vital at this point – particularly for the carer.
Even at this stage it is not uncommon for there to be no diagnosis and no medical intervention. The sufferer may refuse to admit there is anything wrong, or just be too scared of the diagnosis to seek help. Carers often find it hard to confront the situation and will struggle on, doing their best to cope on their own.
It is however important to get help. Even if there is little or nothing that can be done to halt the progress of the dementia, better understanding can make it easier for the carer to deal with difficult situations and ease the trauma for the sufferer.
Little things can make a big difference. Like knowing there is no point in trying to ‘force’ them to remember something they have forgotten. They simply can’t, and while you may think you are helping by getting them to try you are just adding to the frustration and distress they feel.
Similarly, don’t tell them of appointments or things planned for a future date when they can no longer understand time as they may become worried that they do not know when it is going to happen. Try to live only in the moment.
And later when their version of the world may be very different to that of the rest of us, don’t try to correct them – what they believe is real to them and telling them they are wrong will just make them feel frustrated, confused, angry and even scared.
One of the most heart-breaking aspects of dementia is that the real person can get lost. Their personality may completely change and they can become someone their family and friends simply don’t recognise.
Then can come the point when they may not recognise their own loved ones, or may believe they are imposters.
They may become aggressive or even violent and behave irrationally. At this point they can be a danger to themselves and others and it is vital that help is in place.
There is no doubt that dementia is a devastating disease and one of the hardest for family and friends to cope with.
Get help during Dementia Awareness Week and beyond
Better understanding and support makes it a little easier to cope with dementia, but the first step is to confront it. That is why the Alzheimer’s Society in the UK is using this year’s Dementia Awareness Week, 15 – 21 May, is to encourage people to face their worries about dementia by addressing it directly and contacting the Alzheimer’s Society for information and support.