Skip to main content

Medical staff health column

Back to blog

Dealing with dementia

This is a subject near and dear to my heart. Dementia can not only put a strain on families, but it can gradually steal our loved ones from us. My mother had a form of vascular dementia whose symptoms slowly crept in. We often thought she was "faking" her symptoms for attention in the beginning. While that may sound awful to you, I would like to be transparent in case my story resonates with any of you and can hopefully bring you to healing, peace, and understanding.

Her dementia was a result from brain radiation and chemotherapy treatments. While those treatments prolonged her life, by 6 years and took her from the grasps of lung and brain cancer, it slowly stole my mother away from me. Most people are familiar with Alzheimer Dementia but unaware there are other types. Alzheimer's, Vascular, Parkinson's, and Huntington's are just a few of the dementia types. Dementia is a general term for loss of memory and other mental abilities severe enough to interfere with daily life. It is caused by physical changes in the brain. Of the different types of dementia, many of the symptoms overlap and in some cases are irreversible. Overlapping symptoms can make this disease confused with other conditions.

Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia and accounts for 60-80 percent of dementia cases. Alzheimer's is a slowly progressive brain disease that begins well before symptoms emerge. Occasionally forgetting why you walked in to a room or forgetting where you put your keys is a normal part of our busy lives. In Alzheimer's, the individual has memory loss severe and progressive enough to interfere with their daily life. An example would be, they go to the grocery store and then forget how to get home. They have trouble with planning and solving problems. For instance, forgetting to pay bills repeatedly or forgetting how to balance their check book. Speaking and writing may become difficult. Paranoia or hallucinations are not uncommon. Our local sheriff's department occasionally gets calls from elderly believing they have an intruder. The deputy arrives only to find it is the individual's spouse and they have just forgotten who they are. Mood changes resulting in either emotional lability, depression, or aggression are common. Later stages can result in trouble walking as well as bowel and bladder incontinence.

Alzheimer's disease is called a family disease, because the chronic stress of watching a loved one slowly decline affects everyone. You can see how caring for someone with the above symptoms can severely impact family dynamics and relationships. A term called, "caregiver fatigue" is very common in those looking after someone with dementia. The more you know about the disease, the better understanding on how to relate to your loved one. It is very important for caregivers to take care of themselves and obtain resources. Emotions often felt by caregivers and family include: anger, guilt, loss, depression, and frustration.

I learned a lot more than what you find in medical books by caring for a mother with dementia. They teach you to interact with dementia patients by: stating your message clearly, break down tasks in to simple steps, use clocks and calendars to orient them, remove distractions and get their attention, to name a few. When my mother would sit in a chair and forget how to stand or walk, I found singing one of her favorite songs, Amazing Grace, somehow triggered a memory that helped her correlate how to stand and walk easier. Understanding the person can't help their behavior can ease some of the frustration. Even the best caregivers can get mentally and physically exhausted. Be patient with them and most of all, yourself. Ask your healthcare provider what resources or treatments may be available. Your healthcare provider is in this with you and there are holistic approaches to treating this disease.