Our society is greying. For the first time in Canada, we now have more older people (65+) than younger people (under 16). Although there are many benefits and advantages to getting older, the unfortunate facts are that as we age we become more susceptible to age-related diseases.
Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias (also known as neurocognitive disorders) affect one in 11 Canadians aged 65 or older. For those 80 years of age and over, one in three have some form of dementia. Dementia is a syndrome that is usually of a chronic and progressive nature.The symptoms of dementia may include a loss or impairment of brain functions such as:
- problems with short-term memory
- confusion or impaired thinking
- disorientation to place or time
- poor comprehension
- trouble with calculation
- decreased or loss of learning capacity
- problems with language
- poor reasoning
- decreased judgement
Dementia can cause problems in everyday functioning and activities. People with dementia may not be able to drive safely, or they may get lost while driving to a doctor’s appointment. It may be more difficult for them to remember to take medications on a regular basis. They may get into more arguments with others.
Dementia can sneak up gradually (as in Alzheimer’s disease) or it can come on suddenly (as in a stroke that affects cognition). It can fluctuate day-to- day. Loved ones often have difficulty spotting the signs, and often mistakenly attribute the changes to aging, or a “stubborn” personality. Personality changes in the person with dementia can cause stress for loved ones.
At times it is difficult for family members to recognize the signs of dementia and to act upon them. Sometimes they are in denial, sometimes they hope the situation will improve. Others may not know what to do or who to talk to.
If a person with dementia requires more help, the main helper becomes the “caregiver.” Often a spouse or adult child (usually a daughter) takes over the primary role. The process of changing or incorporating this new caregiving role into the relationship can cause a variety of challenges. Although the person with dementia may not be aware (or be unable to recognize) he/she requires help, the caregiver can learn how to provide the assistance needed with practice, education and support.
In the early stage of Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia, the affected person may be aware of his/her memory problems. He/she may notice changes in frustration levels. He/she may be more open to the idea of accepting help. He/she may look to family members for help answering questions or “filling in the blanks.”
Caregiving for a loved one with dementia can be stressful due to increased demands, roles and responsibilities. A caregiver may worry about Dad’s safety with cooking or worry that Mom may wander off. There is also the issue of grieving. A wife may grieve the “loss” of the husband who no longer remembers who she is. A husband may grieve the loss of the future travel plans he had for himself and his wife.
With education, support, self-compassion and self-care practices, the caregiver can have a positive experience of caring for a loved one amidst all of the strain. Seeking out support and knowledge and knowing he/she is not alone are some of the most beneficial things a caregiver can do.
If you have concerns and think someone you know and care about has memory problems and/or dementia, encourage a thorough medical assessment for diagnosis, support and treatment options.
Angela G. Gentile, M.S.W., R.S.W. is a clinical social worker and author of the book, “Caring for a Husband with Dementia: The Ultimate Survival Guide” and the “Dementia Caregiver Solutions” app for iPhone and iPad. She lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba with her husband and two adult children. For more information, visit: www.AngelaGGentile.com