What is dementia?

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Most of us have heard of dementia, but what is it?

Dementia is decline in cognitive ability. Put simply, it is a general term for a loss in memory, language, problem-solving and other thinking abilities that are severe enough to interfere with daily life.

There are many forms and causes of dementia with Alzheimer’s disease being the most common. Other forms of dementia include: vascular dementia, Lewy Body Disease, Frontotemporal dementia, just to name a few.

The risk of getting dementia increases as we age, but it’s not a normal part of the ageing process rather it’s a symptom of a disease.

What are the signs?

Memory loss

This often shows through repetitive questions, being unable to learn new information or forgetting familiar names.

Difficulty concentrating

An avid reader may stop reading or a loud noise can put a task off track.

Finding it hard to carry out familiar daily tasks

This can include becoming confused over the correct change when shopping or being able to complete all the steps of an old recipe.

Struggling to follow a conversation or find the right word

They may substitute inappropriate words or not understand what someone is saying.

Being confused about time and place

They may get lost while walking to a familiar place or think they are back in a different time in their lives.

Mood and personality changes

Someone with dementia can experience rapid mood changes (when they haven’t in the past) or sometimes become more withdrawn or gregarious.

Become withdrawn and depressed

It’s not uncommon for someone with dementia to become withdrawn, stop participating in usual activities and become depressed.

What to do

If you have spot one or more of the signs above, it’s important to visit a doctor. You should never assume a diagnosis of dementia as there are a range of conditions that can have similar symptoms.

If your doctor suspects that there might be dementia they will perform a series of examinations and tests. These could include a physical examination, blood and urine tests, cognitive testing and brain imaging.

Some people may feel daunted or resistant to visit a doctor, as they may not recognise the changes in themselves (this can be due to the changes that are occurring in their brain from the dementia) or they may feel overwhelmed and scared of the thought of being diagnosed with dementia.

How to communicate with someone with dementia

Communicating with someone with dementia requires patience. While someone with dementia can lose the ability to remember language or have difficulty concentrating on conversations, they still feel their emotions. So whenever you spend time with someone, it’s important to always remain positive and caring.

People with dementia can still read body language and absorb the tone and pitch of our voices. The actual words we use account for just a small part in how we communicate. Avoid negative things such as eye rolls and sighs.

Tips when speaking to someone with dementia

  • Remain calm and talk in a gentle, matter-of-fact way
  • Keep sentences short and simple
  • Make eye contact while they are speaking to you
  • Speak slowly and clearly
  • Allow time for what you’ve said to be understood and for a reply to be formulated
  • Use names and labels to help clear the confusions, ie ‘it’s your daughter, Jan’.
  • Give them simple options to reply to

What not to say to someone with dementia

  • Don’t speak about them like they’re not there
  • Don’t be condescending. Your condescending tone can easily picked up by the person, even if the words aren’t understood.
  • Don’t speak about people in front of them, like they’re not there.
  • Don’t interrupt them, even if you know what they’re talking about
  • Don’t give orders and boss them around
  • Don’t ask a lot of direct questions that rely on memory

Non-verbal ways to communicate with someone with dementia

  • Make sure the tone of your voice matches what you’re saying.
  • Touch hands and keep eye contact with the person you are speaking to.
  • Don’t stand too close or over someone, respect their personal space.
  • Point or use hand gestures to help explain what you’re saying.

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