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Understanding Dementia: A Practical Guide


Struggling for a word. Forgetting where you are. Leaving the stove on. Asking the same question again and again. Memory loss is something that affects all parts of your life, from your relationships to your safety.

Dementia is an umbrella term for altered memory, thinking, and reasoning skills. Across the world, 50 million people live with dementia. If your loved one has dementia, their symptoms may make it hard for you to be around them. With more progressive cases, they may not seem like the person they used to be.

Understanding dementia is the first step to providing your loved one with the support they need. Learn more about dementia and its effects and discover tips you can use to care for your loved one.

Dementia and the Brain

The three main parts of the brain are the cerebrum, cerebellum, and brain stem. The cerebrum is the largest part of the brain. It powers our speech, reasoning, emotions, and ability to learn.

The cerebellum controls our muscle movements and balance, and the brain stem acts as a mail carrier, sending messages to and from our brain. These messages allow the body to perform necessary functions like breathing.

Minor problems with memory and thinking are typical with age. Dementia occurs when there are abnormal changes in the brain. Certain skills decline as brain cells are altered and damaged.

Types of Dementia

People experience different symptoms and progressions of dementia, depending on the type of dementia they have.

Common types of dementia are:

  • Alzheimer’s Disease. Between 60 and 80 percent of dementia patients have Alzheimer’s disease. Inside the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient, abnormal proteins surround brain cells while other proteins damage them. Alzheimer’s destroys communication between cells and causes brain tissue to shrink. Common symptoms include forgetting recent events or day-to-day information, inability to find words, problems with decision-making, and perceiving things in 3D.
  • Vascular Dementia. When blood flow to the brain is blocked, brain cells cannot receive enough oxygen. This lack of oxygen damages brain cells. Vascular dementia is the second most common type of dementia. Common symptoms include difficulty with thinking, planning, and concentrating, as well as confusion.
  • Dementia with Lewy Bodies. This type of progressive dementia is closely related to Parkinson’s disease. It’s caused by an abnormal buildup of proteins called alpha-synuclein that damage brain cells. Common symptoms include hallucinations, problems getting sleep or staying alert, and difficulty judging distances.
  • Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD). Protein buildup along the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes can damage those areas of the brain. Common symptoms include changes in personality, altered behavior, difficulty speaking, and forgetting the meaning of words.

Symptoms & Diagnoses 

Dementia affects memory, behavior, and emotions. You may notice that your loved one is uncharacteristically forgetful or acting out of the ordinary. These may be signs of dementia.

Common symptoms include:

  • Struggling to remember recent events
  • Difficulty following conversations or TV shows
  • Forgetting names of everyday objects or people
  • Leaving objects in odd places

People with dementia may also feel:

  • Restless
  • Agitated
  • Anxious
  • Suspicious
  • Confused

A general practitioner may refer your loved one to a memory specialist. A psychiatrist, geriatrician, or neurologist can provide further insight into your loved one’s condition. Your loved one may be asked to participate in a series of mental tests, and, if necessary, have a brain scan.

Tips for Caring for those with Dementia

It’s hard to watch the people we care about display symptoms of dementia. Caring for those with dementia may feel like experiencing a series of losses. Know that it feels this way to the person with dementia, too.

Understanding dementia and its effects can help family members and caregivers better support their loved ones. Here are some tips for caring for your loved one.

  • Be patient. Your loved one may be in denial about the diagnosis. Give them time to process this life change. If your loved one’s symptoms make them act differently, remember to look beyond their words and behaviors. It’s not them. It’s dementia.
  • Listen. It’s important to listen to your loved one so they feel valued. Even if your loved one has difficulty communicating, try not to be dismissive and do your best to include them in conversation.
  • Support their independence. While your loved one may not be completely independent, don’t discourage them from doing things for themselves. You’ll give your loved one confidence and dignity when you support the activities they can still do on their own.
  • Don’t assume. Dementia is a progressive condition, and it has many stages. As you care for your loved one, you shouldn’t assume they are not capable of making decisions or reasoning. Treat them as though they can do so until proven otherwise.

Memory Care in Assisted Living

Assisted living may be a beneficial environment for someone with early dementia. An assisted living community has the resources necessary to make your loved one’s health and happiness top priorities. Through personalized attention and onsite caregivers, your loved one will be able to stay as independent as possible.

Are you ready to talk about assisted living?

Contact Culpepper Place today to learn how our community benefits those with early dementia.

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