Dementia is a general term referring to various types of declines in memory, concentration and judgment. Dementia has a variety of causes, but strokes, toxins, head injuries, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s are among the most common.
Early signs of dementia include apathy, withdrawal, confusion, short term memory loss, problems following or maintaining conversations, disorientation (especially in unfamiliar areas), difficulty planning ahead, struggles with daily tasks such as balancing checkbooks, loss of initiative and motivation, loss of interests and a diminished ability to learn new skills.
As improved healthcare and nutrition allow people to live longer, the downside has been a soaring frequency of dementia. In fact, as many as half of those aged 80 and above may suffer from some form of dementia.
Usually a progressive disease, in the early stages it’s common for the sufferer to experience severe anxiety as well. People with mild dementia know that something’s wrong and gravely fear the future. They worry about embarrassing themselves, money, becoming lost, the impact of their disease on loved ones, losing control of basic bodily functions and even losing their identities or sense of who they are.
In these early stages, sufferers and their family members often minimize and deny what’s going on. They “write off” memory lapses as “senior moments.” They note that the memory problems are mostly with regard to recent events and wrongly believe that since they can remember events that are decades old, perhaps the problems are not serious. You could argue that a little minimization and denial for a while represent reasonable attempts to cope.
However, it’s important to deal with dementia when the signs crop up. Plans need to be made and support and help can be gathered. Although most dementias are not highly treatable, there are times that medical intervention has some value. Furthermore, independence can be maintained longer with appropriate planning. And it’s important to have open conversations in the early stages so that all involved understand what’s going on and how everyone feels. Caregivers are also at substantial risk for experiencing anxiety and depression. They need to get support from other family members and outside resources.
The Alzheimer’s Association has tons of information, message boards for caregivers and sufferers alike, and a 24/7 helpline. Check them out!
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Last reviewed: 6 Jul 2010