Chances are you’ve come across someone with dementia in your lifetime. There are more than 332,000 Australians living with dementia – one of these people may be your husband, wife, mother, father, grandparent, friend or family member. It can be an incredibly frustrating condition, made even worse by the heartbreaking process of watching your loved one forget shared memories – the birth of your children or your wedding day, for example. It can be easy to move away from your loved one as they are going through their dementia journey to avoid further disappointment; however, this tendency is causing great isolation for people with dementia who already feel alone and confused as they try to navigate their way through a new world.
As part of Dementia Awareness Month and World Alzheimer’s Day, both happening in September, Alzheimer’s Australia is encouraging all Australians to help minimise the social isolation that people with dementia face. Read on as we discuss dementia, communication techniques and other ways you can help create dementia-friendly communities.
What is dementia?
Dementia is an umbrella term for a number of disorders affecting the brain. These disorders affect thinking and behaviour. Alzheimer’s Australia says that the hallmark of dementia is the inability to carry out everyday activities as a consequence of diminished cognitive ability. Doctors diagnose dementia if two or more cognitive functions are significantly impaired. These cognitive functions can include memory, language skills, understanding information, spatial skills, judgement and attention. It may be hard for people with dementia to solve problems and control their emotions. Not every person with dementia has the same symptoms – it all depends on which areas of the brain are affected, and what specific condition the person has been diagnosed with.
There are many different diseases that cause dementia, but why people develop these diseases is unknown. However, age does play a factor; most people with dementia are aged 65 years or over. As does genetics: those with a family history of dementia have a higher risk of being diagnosed. In rare cases, younger people do develop dementia. This is called ‘younger onset dementia’.
There are many different types of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, affecting up to 70% of all people with dementia. 1 in 4 people over the age of 85 have Alzheimer’s disease. The condition can be subtle in its early stages and therefore hard to diagnose. However, the disease often begins with lapses in memory and difficulty finding words for everyday objects.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease can include:
- Frequent memory difficulties
- Vagueness in conversation
- Loss of enthusiasm for once enjoyed activities
- Taking longer to do routine tasks
- Forgetting well-known people or places
- Finding it hard to process questions and follow instructions
- Changes in mood
Other common types of dementia are:
Vascular dementia – Vascular dementia is the second most common cause of dementia. There are two types: Multi-infarct dementia and Binswanger’s disease. Both forms of Vascular dementia are stroke-related.
The symptoms of Multi-infarct dementia may include severe depression, mood swings and epilepsy. Binswanger’s disease people often show signs of slowness and lethargy, difficulty walking, mood swings and lack of bladder control.
Lewy body disease – One of the more complicated forms of dementia, Lewy body disease occurs when there is an abnormal build-up of a protein called alphasynuclein in the brain cells. This build-up can cause changes in movement, thinking and behaviour. Lewy body disease is closely associated with Parkinson’s disease.
It is important that if you observe a loved one displaying two or more of the above symptoms, that you encourage them to see a doctor. The doctor will be able to provide a clinical diagnosis, and provide treatment options and information.
How can I help?
I have a loved one who has dementia
It is important to not lose touch with a person who has dementia, especially in the early stages. Caring for people with dementia can be emotionally draining, but it is important to maintain contact with your friend or family member to ensure they feel supported. Here are a few more tips about how you can help a person with dementia:
- Help them maintain independence: Support your friend or family member with dementia, but don’t take over their life. This may be frustrating at first, but it will help the person maintain a sense of control over their own life.
- Communicate: Try to communicate clearly and without distraction – turn off the TV or radio. It is easy for people with dementia to get easily confused. Try to keep conversations short and simple, and focus on one idea at a time.
- Don’t be offended: It is hard not to react when your close friend or family member draws a blank in a significant event in your life. It is important to keep composed when talking to them, and try not to show your disappointment when they fail to remember something important you both shared.
- Be patient: People with dementia often need more time than usual to process information. Make sure you give them enough time to respond – more often than not, they have the right words to say; they just can’t convert their thoughts into speech in the usual time it takes for someone to talk. Try not to finish their sentences, as this further disempowers them.
I don’t know anyone with dementia
This September, Alzheimer’s Australia is encouraging people to create dementia-friendly communities. If you are passionate about making your neighbourhood more inclusive, you can lobby local government for a dementia friendly community by sending them this checklist. If you run a business, you can hold a staff meeting to discuss dementia in your community and gather ideas on how to your business a dementia-friendly workplace.
After holding successful Memory Walks and Jogs in New South Wales and Victoria, Alzheimer’s Australia is also holding the event in Western Australia, Queensland, Australian Capital Territory, Tasmania and South Australia. Even if you’re not affected by dementia, you can still participate in the event to raise money for Alzheimer’s Australia. The funds will go towards improving Alzheimer’s Australia’s vital support programs for people with dementia and their families. To find out how you can get involved, head to the Memory Walk and Jog website.
The Final Word
This World Alzheimer’s Day, make sure you visit your close friend or family member with dementia – your visit may brighten their day in a very isolating world. Remember, be patient, simple and help empower them. Understanding the illness will help you be a more supportive friend or family member; for more information on dementia, please visit Alzheimer’s Australia website.