Caregivers who are able to identify and care for individuals with dementia are much more prepared to care for an older population than those who are not. Caregivers need to have basic dementia care training to successfully care for older adults with dementia. Let’s start with the fundamentals.
WHAT IS DEMENTIA?
Dementia is a term that refers to a group of symptoms resulting from a number of different brain diseases. All dementias tend to cause problems with memory, language skills, information processing, mental agility, understanding and judgement. It’s a progressive type of cognitive impairment, meaning its effect on thinking and memory gets worse over time. Dementia can also trigger other mental health problems such as personality changes, anxiety, mood swings and depression. In more advanced dementia, the person may lose the ability to get up and move, or the interest to eat or drink. Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common type of dementia, affecting up to 70% of those living with dementia. Fewer than half of those who have dementia are ever diagnosed, even though it is a most common cause of disability, dependence and nursing home placement. Unfortunately, many people may feel that dementia is a normal part of aging, which it isn’t. Health professionals may be afraid to give the diagnosis and patients are understandably afraid of receiving it.
WHAT DOES DEMENTIA LOOK LIKE?
This varies from person to person. It depends on the stage and severity of the dementia, and ranges from difficulty speaking clearly and planning and organizing, to trouble choosing the proper clothing and dressing themselves. There are also changes in personality and behavior as well as trouble walking and feeding themselves.
WHAT CAUSES DEMENTIA?
Researchers have been learning a lot about causes of dementia in the last few decades. For each type of dementia, there is a certain set of proteins that seem to cause the disease. These proteins accumulate in the brain and set off a series of events that is specific to each type of dementia.
WHAT ARE THE RISK FACTORS FOR DEMENTIA?
The two biggest risk factors for Alzheimer’s dementia are age and family history. It is rare, however, for someone to develop Alzheimer’s before the age of 60, unless they carry a specific gene mutation or have Down Syndrome. Other risk factors include a history of head trauma, heart or vascular disease, high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, low physical activity, and lack of formal education. Recently, researchers have been looking into other possible risk factors such as diet, sleep and obesity.
IS DEMENTIA A NORMAL PART OF AGING?
Dementia is not a normal part of aging. As we all get older, we all experience some memory changes around the age of 40. It may take you a bit longer to process or recall information, but, with effort, you can do it. Normal age-related memory changes don’t affect our ability to function day to day and don’t get worse over time. It can get slower, but not worse.
Dementia, in contrast, is progressive, meaning: it does get worse. It directly affects the things a person can do for themselves, or what we call “executive functioning”. Some examples include a really good cook who forgets a simple recipe, a seamstress who can’t do a basic stitch, or an English Professor who has difficulty recalling a story to their students.
Also, dementia is different from short-term confusion, or delirium. Delirium may be the result of certain medications, infections (like a UTI or pneumonia), psychiatric illness or a surgery. Delirium can be resolved while dementia gets worse over time. Other concerns include Mild Cognitive Impairment, or MCI. Nearly half of those with MCI may get better with time or stay the same, while the other half progress to dementia.
There are many things to know and learn about dementia. That is why it is important for caregivers to know at least the basics. Getting basic training on dementia can also help caregivers be more professional. Agencies who train their caregivers for dementia care will be helping them prepare for many circumstances when helping elderly people.