Chances are, you already know someone living with dementia. Nearly 60,000 Albertans are wrestling with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. While one in five Canadians knows what it’s like to care for a loved one with dementia, an aging population means that number is only likely to grow over the next several years.
That can be a particularly poignant evolution for any family caregiver. Our memories define us. They tell the story of who we are, and the lives we lead. To care for someone moving through progressive stages of dementia or memory loss is to feel the loss of those memories right along with them.
Even so, there are bright spots on the horizon. Last December, researchers at the University of British Columbia launched Canada’s first testing program for Alzheimer’s disease. While Alzheimer’s is only one of many forms of dementia that disproportionately impact seniors, it is by far the most common. Now, for the first time, doctors specializing in dementia care will be able to recommend specific testing for folks experiencing mild to moderate symptoms of the disease. That can go a long way for a health care issue where early diagnosis and intervention are key. It represents an important step in a broader plan for how to assess the disease informally at the family level. What do you need to know?
At Home Care Assistance Calgary, we recommend keeping five questions top of mind, and raising concerns to the doctor as soon as possible:
- Is memory loss getting in the way of everyday tasks? Not all memory loss is created equal. In fact, about 40% of people over 65 experience some form of age-related memory impairment. But, only 1% of them will progress to dementia each year. That said, while some memory loss is typical over time, anything that gets in the way of a senior’s ability to function is a red flag. If someone is repeating the same questions; getting confused about time, place or people; or struggling to follow instructions—there may be something more significant going on.
- Are you noticing big changes in someone’s mood? Disposition can be a meaningful indicator of how a senior is truly doing. Never underestimate the importance of asking questions about how someone feels, and paying close attention to the nuances layered within their answer. From apathy or irritability to aggression or withdrawal: mood is an important indicator of overall health and wellness. Marked changes in mood or personality should trigger you to investigate further.
- Does everything look right on the surface? Never judge a book by its cover. In the same breath, outward appearance can be a key sign that someone’s struggling to care for themselves the way they should. Are they dressed appropriately for the weather? Do they appear clean and well-groomed? Are buttons aligned, and jackets zipped? These seemingly simple things can be signs of much more complex changes in a senior’s physical capabilities, mental health or cognitive function. If someone’s always cared for themselves and appears to be letting go, find out why.
- Has sleep become a struggle? A good night’s sleep can go a long way. Most people, including seniors, experience the occasional sleepless night. But sleepiness can be more than simply a sign someone’s not catching enough Zs. Given sleep disturbances affect up to 25% of people with mild to moderate dementia (and 50% of people with severe dementia), sustained insomnia or trouble sleeping should be checked out to ensure it’s not indicative of another condition.
- Is appetite fading away? Losing weight without trying should get your attention for a number of different reasons. It could mean many different things for a senior, especially someone who’s living alone. Whether they’re physically struggling to shop for food, unsure how to stretch their budget effectively, or feeling confused in the kitchen: weight loss isn’t always the result of losing one’s appetite. Especially given a person with dementia may lose interest in food, be sure to get to the bottom of whatever is causing the change.
What’s the key takeaway?
Knowing and tracking the signs and symptoms of dementia can make a big impact in the long-term treatment of the disease. Asking great questions, taking periodic notes, and sharing information across the team of physicians, family members and professional caregivers is absolutely essential. When you know what you’re looking for, you can work together to provide care that evolves in line with someone’s changing needs. All of this speaks to longevity and quality of life.