Recently, Pat Summitt, longtime coach of the University of Tennessee women's basketball team, was diagnosed with a form of dementia. Her story has put a spotlight on something that millions of Americans suffer with. But, for many, dementia is something of a puzzle.
Dementia isn't a disease, It's many diseases
On its website, The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) points out that "Dementia is not a specific disease." In fact, dementia is better thought of as a word that covers a number of different conditions that affect the brain.
The most common kind of dementia is Alzheimer's disease. This disease can cause serious memory loss. This can lead to a person not being able to do simple things and take care of themselves. It is thought that more than five million Americans have Alzheimer's disease. According to WebMD, this makes up between 50 percent and 60 percent of all dementia cases.
Other less common and less-talked-about diseases are also forms of dementia. These include vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal dementia, Huntington's disease, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Signs and symptoms
Memory loss alone is not enough for a doctor to diagnose dementia. As NINDS points out, for a doctor to diagnose dementia, the patient must be awake and aware. And there must be two brain functions not working properly, such as memory, language skills, perception, or cognitive skills including reasoning and judgment.
Also, dementia is most often seen in people aged 60 or older. But, it can happen to people much younger.
The following can be signs of dementia:
- Memory loss
- Having trouble remembering recent events
- Not knowing family, friends, and places
- Having trouble finding the right words to say or the names of things
- Having trouble with math
- Having problems planning and carrying out tasks – such as balancing a checkbook, using a recipe, or writing a letter
- Having trouble exercising judgment, such as knowing what to do in an emergency
- Not being able to control moods or behaviors – suffering from depression, sadness or nervousness
- Not keeping up personal care such as bathing
Caring for someone with dementia
Taking care of someone with dementia can be hard. Often, the dementia patient has trouble doing simple things like getting dressed or feeding themselves. This puts a strain on those caring for that person. But maybe the hardest part of taking care of someone with dementia is trying communicate – or talk – with that person.
People with dementia have trouble understanding what is being said to them. They have trouble remembering what they have been asked or told. They can become easily distracted by noises and other things around them. And they can even seem to become "lost" in their own minds.
So, the key is to be patient and follow some simple steps.
The Family Caregiver Alliance offers the following tips for speaking and dealing with a person suffering from dementia. Founded in 1977, Family Caregiver Alliance was the first community-based nonprofit organization in the country to address the needs of families and friends providing long-term care at home.
10 tips for communicating with a person with dementia
Improving your skills at caregiving for your loved ones with dementia will make your and their life less stressful. It will also help improve the quality of your relationship. This will also help you handle the difficult behavior that often accompanies dementia.
Set a positive mood.
How cheerful you are and your body language show your feelings and thoughts stronger than your words. Set a happy mood by talking to your loved one in a pleasant and gentle manner. Use smiles, tone of voice, and light touch to help show your warm feelings.
Get the person's attention.
Limit distractions and noise—turn off the radio or TV, close the curtains or shut the door, or move to a quiet place. Before speaking, make sure you have his or her attention. Use the person's name. Tell the person your name and who you are. If the person is seated, get down to their level and look them in the eyes.
Keep it simple.
Use simple words and sentences. Speak slowly, clearly, and in a warm tone. Do not use a loud or high voice. If the person does not understand the first time, say the same words over again calmly. If the person still does not understand, wait a few minutes and say what you need to in a different way. Use the names of people and places to help the person understand.
Ask questions that can easily be answered.
Ask one question at a time; those with yes or no answers work best. Do not ask open-ended questions or give too many choices. For example, ask, "Would you like to wear your white shirt or your blue shirt?" Better still, show the person the choices instead of just talking about them.
Listen with your ears, eyes, and heart.
Be patient in waiting for your loved one's answer. If the person is having trouble, it's okay to suggest words. Watch the person's face, hands and body for clues to what the person is wanting to say. When words won't come, the way a person looks and moves can help a caregiver understand what the person needs or wants.
Break down activities into a series of steps.
This makes many tasks much easier. You can help your loved one to do what he or she can on their own. You can gently remind them of steps they forget. And you can help with steps they're no longer able to do alone. Things like showing where to place the dinner plate with your hand can be very helpful.
When the going gets tough, change something.
When your loved one becomes upset, try changing the subject or going to a different place. For example, ask the person for help or suggest going for a walk. You might say, "I see you're feeling sad—I am sorry you're upset. Let us go get something to eat."
Respond with love.
People with dementia often feel confused, anxious, and unsure of themselves. They can also get reality confused and may recall things that never really happened. Do not try to convince them they are wrong. Stay focused on their feelings (which are real) and help them feel comforted and care for. Sometimes holding hands, touching, and hugging will get the person to respond when all else fails.
Remember the good old days.
Remembering the past is often a calming thing. Many people with dementia can't remember what happened 45 minutes ago, but they can remember their lives 45 years earlier. So, do not ask questions about the recent past – like what they had for lunch. Instead, try asking general questions about the person's distant past.
Maintain your sense of humor.
Use humor when you can, though not at the person's expense. People with dementia tend to keep their social skills and are usually happy to laugh along with you.
Creating a safe place for your loved one
A typical home can present many dangers and problems to a person with dementia. But simple changes can really help.
NINDS offers these tips to create a safe home for a person with dementia:
- Take away or lock up such things as sharp knives, chemicals, tools, and other hazards.
- Install bed and bathroom safety rails.
- Take off locks from bedroom and bathroom doors.
- Lower the hot water temperature to 120°F or less to lower the risk of a burn.
- Have the person wear some form of identification at all times in case they wander away or become lost.
- Add locks or alarms to outside doors to help stop the person from walking away unsupervised.
Don't forget to take care of yourself.
Taking care of a person with dementia can take a toll on you. It can be tiring to deal with an adult who cannot care for themselves and relies on you for almost everything.
So make sure to take care of yourself as well. Take breaks. Ask for help so that you can get away for a while. Make sure to eat well and exercise when you can.
It may seem like you are being selfish when you do things for yourself. But remember, the better you take care of yourself, the better you will be able to care for your loved one.
What can be done
As of now, there are no drugs that can cure Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia. But there are medicines approved by the Food and Drug Administration that can help some dementia patients control their symptoms and live better lives.
Also, certain kinds of physical therapy, such as practicing simple tasks over and over, and rewards for good behavior have been helpful for some patients.
But the bottom line is that family members, loved ones, and doctors have to work together to offer the best care for the dementia patient. With the right approach, you can make a positive difference.