Dementia is an umbrella category of brain diseases that causes a gradual decline in the ability to think, remember, and function day-to-day. It refers to a cluster of symptoms such as short-term memory loss, language deficits, poor judgment, and changes in behavior.
While Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, comprising 50 to 70 percent of all dementia diagnoses, there are more than 100 types of memory loss. Some of the more common ones include Parkinson’s disease dementia (PDD), Lewy body dementia (LBD), frontotemporal dementia, and vascular dementia.
In some cases, what looks like dementia may actually be something else. For example, older adults are at risk of a vitamin or mineral deficiency — vitamin B12 deficiency is common — since absorption of nutrients declines with age. Also, a senior may not be able or willing to prepare nutritious meals every day. Eating fast foods high in trans fats and artificial ingredients can damage memory, so what looks like dementia is actually a nutritional deficiency.
Because loss and loneliness tend to increase with age as well, depression can be a major factor in dementia. One study found the effect of loneliness is equivalent to smoking fifteen cigarettes a day! Loneliness and the lack of mental stimulation and emotional connection increase the risk of heart disease and other physical and mental health problems. It’s a downward spiral in which dementia is an effect, rather than cause.
Other health issues can masquerade as dementia symptoms in the elderly. For instance, a urinary tract infection (UTI) can appear as confusion and agitation, as well as exacerbate existing dementia symptoms, but does not mean someone has dementia.
In fact, more than 50 conditions can mimic dementia symptoms, including a reaction to medications (or taking the incorrect dosage) and an underactive thyroid. This is why an accurate diagnosis is crucial for appropriate treatment.
What Are the 7 Stages of Dementia?
Fortunately, dementia, while incurable at this time, doesn’t happen all at once; there are seven identifiable stages someone passes through as the disease progresses.
- Stage 1. The first three stages are referred to as “pre-dementia” stages because someone generally exhibits no signs of dementia or very minimal symptoms. At Stage 1, there is no apparent cognitive impairment.
- Stage 2. This level is commonly called age-related memory loss. You misplace your keys or forget a friend’s name, lapses that can happen at any age. While this is typical age-related memory loss, it might signal the earliest sign of dementia.
- Stage 3. At this point, mild cognitive impairment (MCI) becomes clinical. People have trouble concentrating on tasks, performance at work suffers, they lose important objects or get lost easily themselves.
- Stage 4. As mild dementia sets in, the person will likely become socially withdrawn, disoriented, with difficulty recognizing others or remembering their own personal history. They may attempt to hide symptoms in order to subdue stress.
- Stage 5. With moderate dementia, deficits become obvious. A person with Stage 5 dementia will need help with activities of daily living, forget basic information such as where they live and have trouble making decisions.
- Stage 6. By this point, someone is ready for full-time care. They are generally unaware of their surroundings, forget the names of loved ones, and exhibit major changes in personality and behavior, becoming delusional, agitated, aggressive or obsessive.
- Stage 7. Patients with severe dementia will have lost many motor skills, and will progressively lose most if not all verbal abilities. Someone in the final stage of dementia will need assistance in all aspects of daily living, including eating, toileting, grooming, bathing, and walking.
As noted, sometimes dementia-like conditions may be caused by an underlying deficiency or illness that is treatable. The more aware you are of these stages, the sooner you will be able to seek help, potentially stalling or reversing your loved one’s symptoms.
Caring for Someone with Dementia
For many people in midlife, the stage that precedes becoming the older generation entails caring for elderly parents or other loved ones. It’s a fairly invisible and often underappreciated role, yet the price tag for informal caregiving in the U.S. elders is a staggering $522 billion a year, according to a RAND Corporation study.
“Three out of five caregivers also are in the labor force. Working-age people under age 65 provide 22 billion of those 30 billion caregiving hours, and they often lose income due to reduced work hours,” reports the study.
Because being a care provider for someone with dementia is a demanding role that can affect your quality of life and relationships as well as your health, we suggest following these five fundamentals to help make your caregiving experience the best it can be, for both your loved one and you.
- Say yes to support. Family Caregiver Alliance is one excellent virtual support network: the first community-based nonprofit organization to address the needs of families and friends who are providing long-term care for loved ones at home. Here are the top 5 support groups for dementia caregivers.
- Be realistic. This road isn’t a straight line. Your loved one will have good days and not-so-good days. Aim to measure your success in terms of helping them stay as comfortable, content, and safe as possible.
- Put yourself in their shoes. It’s frightening to realize you’re losing your ability to think clearly and remember what you once knew with ease. The more you can empathize with their feelings and fears, the more you will be able to soothe the person with dementia and be as supportive as possible.
- Educate yourself about your loved one’s dementia. Although memory loss is a classic dementia symptom, in other types of dementia, such as frontotemporal dementia, the dominant symptom is personality changes. The more informed you are, the better equipped you’ll be to manage symptoms as they manifest.
- Plan ahead. Because dementia is progressive, there will likely come a time when care needs increase and caregiving at home becomes impractical. At this point, professional care in a residential environment is the next best step. Researching memory care communities in your area and proactive financial planning, as well as ongoing health assessment for your loved one with dementia, are essential for this future transition.
Is There An Upside to Caregiving?
Can caring for a loved one with dementia be a positive experience? Doreen Cox began keeping a journal when she became her mother’s caregiver, and relatives encouraged her to publish it after her mother’s death.
Adventures in Mother-Sitting rings with the humor and compassion that having lived through this experience engenders, much as Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast’s depiction of her parents’ decline and move to assisted living illumines these subjects with both beauty and poignancy.
Cox journeyed through an emotional roller coaster of grief intermingled with surprising instances of connection, not only with her childlike mother but also with her innermost self. She writes, “There were two things dementia could not destroy: my mother’s sweet spirit and her in-the-moment joy.”
In fact, even someone who has dementia can view it as a gift. Wendy Mitchell, who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2014 at age 58, says dementia allows her to live in the present. Her book, Somebody I Used to Know, comforts those with cognitive decline and enlightens caregivers.
Dementia Care Options at Kensington Park
At Kensington Park, our goal is to help each resident live as independently as possible for as long as possible, and to care for them with love and joy. We offer assistance where needed, then step back to encourage independence.
Because we understand that memory loss unfolds uniquely within each individual, we provide customized care to accommodate each resident’s needs. The Kensington Club is designed especially for assisted living residents when mild forgetfulness has begun to impact someone’s daily life. It serves as a bridge to the next level of care.
For loved ones in need of assistance in our independent living Highlands neighborhood, but not quite ready to move to our memory care community, we offer Kensington At Home, a licensed home health care provider that provides home care right in your loved one’s residence. Care providers include registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, certified medication technicians, and certified nursing assistants, all available for as much or as little time as needed.
When someone is ready to move to memory care, we provide two distinct neighborhoods, depending on the resident’s stage of memory loss:
- Connections serve seniors in the early to mid-stage of dementia care, providing a secure environment to maximize safety while helping residents remain independently engaged in activities that give meaning and purpose to their days.
- Haven, for middle to late-stage dementia residents who require a higher level of assistance and care, features adaptive design to help with recognition and minimize confusion. We’re able to provide maximum safety while enabling memory care residents to engage in ways that are meaningful, soothing, and pleasing for them.
We look forward to meeting with you, and to learn how we can help make this next phase of your loved one’s life as enriching and meaningful as possible.