With ageing comes many different ailments. When you start to notice something different about an elderly loved one, it does not necessarily mean that they may have dementia. Some memory lapses are common and relatively frequent throughout a healthy life. When trying to understand memory loss, it is therefore important to differentiate between ‘normal’ ageing and changes that indicate a deterioration in your loved one’s health, safety and wellbeing.
Dementia is not a specific disease but an overall term that describes a group of symptoms associated with a progressive decline in memory, reasoning and other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a common form of dementia, accounting for 60 to 80% of cases. (Vascular dementia, often caused by stroke, is the second most common type of dementia.) It is not a normal part of ageing and is a condition that needs to be expertly and specifically treated.
Symptoms can vary from individual to individual and are not limited to memory loss, which is why it is important to know what the other signs are that one should look out for. The early warning signs of dementia are very subtle and vague and may not be immediately obvious. These include changes in mood and personality, difficulty completing familiar tasks, misplacing items, poor or impaired judgement, bad money management, becoming disoriented in familiar environments, getting lost in public, having trouble following a discussion and forgetting commonly used words.
Recognising these signs and realising that something has changed takes enormous courage because it is not something we want to easily accept. Confronting the need to take some significant decisions about elderly loved ones’ care can be overwhelming and cause significant anxiety and stress to family members.
September is World Alzheimer’s Month. In order to raise awareness and encourage understanding of this common, yet devastating disease, Livewell lists the 10 warning signs and symptoms of dementia as follows:
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life
One of the most common signs of dementia, especially in the early stage, is forgetting recently learned information. Others include forgetting important dates or events, asking for the same information over and over, and increasingly needing to rely on aides (e.g. reminder notes or electronic devices) or family members for things they used to handle on their own.
What’s a typical age-related change? Sometimes forgetting names or appointments, but remembering them later.
- Challenges in planning or solving problems
Some people may experience changes in their ability to develop and follow a plan or work with numbers. They may have trouble following a familiar recipe or keeping track of monthly bills. They may have difficulty concentrating and take much longer to do things than they did before.
What’s a typical age-related change? Making occasional errors when balancing a checkbook.
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks
People with dementia often find it hard to complete daily tasks. Sometimes they may have trouble driving to a familiar location, managing a budget at work or remembering the rules of a favourite game.
What’s a typical age-related change? Occasionally needing help to use the settings on a microwave or to record a television show.
- Confusion with time or place
People with dementia can lose track of dates, seasons and the passage of time. They may have trouble understanding something if it is not happening immediately. Sometimes they may forget where they are or how they got there.
What’s a typical age-related change? Getting confused about the day of the week but figuring it out later.
- Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
For some people, having vision problems is a sign of dementia. They may have difficulty reading, judging distance, and determining colour or contrast, which may cause problems with driving.
What’s a typical age-related change? Vision changes related to cataracts.
- New problems with words in speaking or writing
People with dementia may have trouble following or joining a conversation. They may stop in the middle of a conversation and have no idea how to continue or they may repeat themselves. They may struggle with vocabulary, have problems finding the right word or call things by the wrong name (e.g. calling a ‘watch’ a ‘hand clock’.)
What’s a typical age-related change? Sometimes having trouble finding the right word.
- Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
A person with dementia may put things in unusual places. They may lose things and be unable to go back over their steps to find them again. Sometimes, they may accuse others of stealing. This may occur more frequently over time.
What’s a typical age-related change? Misplacing things from time to time and retracing steps to find them.
- Decreased or poor judgment
People with dementia may experience changes in judgment or decision making. For example, they may use poor judgment when dealing with money, giving large amounts to telemarketers. They may pay less attention to grooming or keeping themselves clean.
What’s a typical age-related change? Making a bad decision once in a while.
- Withdrawal from work or social activities
A person with dementia may start to remove themselves from hobbies, social activities, work projects or sports. They may have trouble keeping up with a favourite sports team or remembering how to complete a favourite hobby. They may also avoid being social because of the changes they have experienced.
What’s a typical age-related change? Sometimes feeling weary of work, family and social obligations.
- Changes in mood and personality
The mood and personality of people with dementia can change. They can become confused, frustrated, angry, suspicious, aggressive, depressed, fearful or anxious. They may be easily upset at home, at work, with friends or in places where they are out of their comfort zone.
What’s a typical age-related change? Developing very specific ways of doing things and becoming irritable when a routine is disrupted.
If you or someone you care about is experiencing any of the 10 warning signs, please consult with a medical professional. Early diagnosis gives you a chance to seek treatment and plan for your future. Consulting with your GP is a good start, followed by a full assessment by a physician, neurologist or psychiatrist. Actively seek the best opinion you can afford, as the accurate and timely diagnosis of dementia is of critical importance, and its misdiagnosis equally so.
Livewell specialises in progressive, tailored dementia care at their estates in Somerset West and Bryanston. For more information, visit livewell.care