Dementia is not a specific disease, rather it’s an “umbrella term” and there are many diseases that fall under this umbrella.
Dementia is a general term for a decline in cognitive ability severe enough to interfere with daily life. Thinking, memory, and reasoning are examples of cognitive ability. Symptoms also might include changes in personality, mood, and behavior. Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common type seen, but others include vascular dementias, Dementia with Lewy Bodies, Fronto-temporal lobe dementia and Parkinson’s dementia. There are thought to be as many as 100 different types of dementias.
It is important to know that there are real, physical changes happening in the brain of someone with dementia. Symptoms may vary based on the type of dementia, the areas of the brain that are affected and the progression of the disease. Some people may have difficulty with speaking if their speech center is affected, while others retain the ability to speak throughout the course of their disease.
Some signs of dementia include:
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life
- Challenges in planning or problem solving
- Difficulty in completing familiar tasks at work or home
- Confusion with time or place
- Trouble understanding visual images or spatial relationships
- New problems with words in speaking or writing
- Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
- Decreased or poor judgement
- Withdrawal from work or social activities
- Changes in mood or personality
Persons with dementia are at higher risk for injury from falls, health issues and becoming lost in their surroundings due to the changes happening in the brain.
Persons with dementia are more prone to falls due to poor judgement, visual/spatial issues, and general walking or balance problems. They may also forget to use their cane or walker, or use them incorrectly. Fall prevention is a major concern for those with dementia, as falls can lead to serious injury or death. Good lighting (including the use of nightlights), ensuring carpet is secured (don’t use throw rugs), keeping pathways clear of cords or clutter and proper fitting shoes are just some ways to prevent falls. Physical activity and exercise can improve strength and balance. Talk with your primary care doctor about how physical therapy may be able to help.
Persons with dementia are also more prone to health issues such as urinary tract infections or pneumonia. This may be caused by several reasons, such as not recognizing the symptoms of illness, or they may be poor reporters of symptoms. They frequently don’t drink enough fluids, as many have lost the thirst mechanism that makes us feel thirsty. Dehydration is a common problem, and encouraging fluid intake (if not medically restricted) is very important.
Persons with dementia are prone to wandering, as they may be confused by new surroundings. They may become lost in familiar surroundings, such as finding their way back to their house from the mailbox. They may also wander off because they think they are late for work, or are looking for an old friend. Safety measures to protect the person from wandering and becoming lost are very important. Home safety tips are available through the Alzheimer’s Association (alz.org) and programs are available such as “medic alert / safe return” through the Alzheimer’s Association that provide life saving information in case of an emergency (medicalert.org/safereturn).