There are a lot of misconceptions about what dementia is and what to look for in oneself or a loved one. Any diagnosis of dementia can and should only be made by a medical professional, however, the following signs may indicate that someone should be checked out. But remember, who doesn’t lose something from time to time? Or momentarily forget the name of someone they’ve met several times?
Dementia is not a disease rather, it’s a range of symptoms including cognitive decline.
1. Memory loss
Because dementia is caused by damage to brain cells, one of the areas of the brain that can be affected is that dealing with memory. In the early stages of dementia, it is short-term memory loss, rather than long-term, that is likely to be affected. Some of the more common things that are forgotten are:
- appointments and dates
- where particular items belong
- where particular items have been placed
- the purpose of entering a particular room
- the purpose of what someone is saying
- the name of someone familiar.
The most important thing to note is that many of these occurrences are not unusual when people age. In fact, there is a term, ‘senior’s moment’ that is often used to explain them away. Also, some people have lived their life with ‘shocking memories’ and they may not be getting worse, just more noticeable because they are at the age where dementia is possible.
The time to start becoming concerned is when short-term memory loss becomes frequent and apparent in people who had always displayed good short-term memory.
2. Communication and language
The extent to which communication and language problems develop depend on the individual, and the type and stage of dementia. It can also vary from day-to-day. Some of the more common things to look out for are:
- Not being able to find the right word to describe something. As a result, they may use a related word, a word that bears little or no relation to the original, or not be able to find any word at all.
- Sentences that seem to have no meaning or contain words that are jumbled up.
- Difficulty in understanding what another person is communicating.
- Stopping in mid-sentence to find the right word/s to continue.
- Stopping in mid-sentence to gather one’s thoughts.
- Lacking most or all ability to communicate through language (a feature of late-stage dementia).
3. Difficulty performing tasks
This is one of the easiest symptoms to pick up on. When someone is having difficulty completing or remembering tasks that they have done frequently throughout a large part of their life, it can be an indication of early-stage dementia. Among the more common tasks that can act as trigger points are:
- Driving to a regular location
- Preparing a common meal
- Doing weekly budgeting
- Playing a game e.g. board game or chess
- Regular workplace tasks
- Dressing oneself.
Confusion in people with dementia can take many forms. Two of the most common are time and place. With time, this can range from forgetting what time of day or even year it is, to totally misjudging the passage of time. The latter will cause confusion of they are admonished for being away for several hours if they believe they were only out for a few minutes.
In terms of place, people with dementia may not know why they are at a particular location or may forget the directions to somewhere they have been to many times, including their own home. This is why police people with dementia often go missing close to their own home.
Confusion can also extend to not being able to place a face or name, even someone close to them. This is different to not recognizing someone and can be distressing for all concerned.
5. Personality, mood and behavioural changes
Personality, mood and behavioural changes can be particularly distressing, particularly for family and friends of the person with dementia. Some of the more common forms of such changes include:
- developing a short fuse that is easily triggered;
- becoming suspicious of people, even those close to them
- developing anxiety
- showing signs of depression
- becoming uninhibited or more outgoing
- exhibiting dramatic mood swings
- becoming uncomfortable outside one’s comfort zone
- becoming a hoarder
- engaging in repetitive behavior.
Of course, if the person has exhibited signs like those above throughout their life, there is less reason for concern. It is when these signs develop seemingly from nowhere that you may wish to seek professional advice.
6. Decreased or poor judgement
The ability to make the right decisions can be impaired in people with dementia. Sometimes this can be relatively harmless, such as wearing slippers down the road, but sometimes it can lead to harm, both physical and financial. Some of the more common judgement-related problems are:
- Dressing in inappropriate clothing, such as t-shirts in the middle of winter or sweaters in the height of summer.
- Expressing themselves to people in a tactless and hurtful manner.
- Taking things from shops without paying.
- Providing credit card details to people over the phone, or in response to an email.
- Not checking the credentials of people offering to perform certain tasks for money e.g. unsolicited gutter cleaners and house painters.
- Changing financial arrangements e.g. a will, particularly at the behest of an individual.
7. Change in visual and spatial perception
While many people’s visual and spatial perception changes as they age, it can also be a sign of early-stage dementia. Among the more common issues are difficulty judging distance, direction, colour, contrast and patterns. This can obviously impact dramatically on one’s driving ability and can lead to the difficult decision to insist someone stop driving. This, in turn, can affect the quality of life of an individual.
Other areas affected include reading of some materials, particularly maps; identifying food; and even believing that they are being viewed by someone when looking in the mirror.
Support and care
If you are searching for care and support for your loved one, do not rush into the first available option. Visit CareAbout to check various options and facilities, particularly focusing on those who provide specialist dementia care.
An individual diagnosis of dementia has an impact on a network of people: friends, families and colleagues. Support and further information is available from the National Dementia Helpline 1800 100 500 or at www.dementia.org.au