Seeing a loved one struggle with Dementia can be difficult, but there are lots of ways you can help and support them in living a comfortable and fulfilling life. We understand the challenges that come with supporting a family member living with Dementia, so we’ve answered the important questions on what Dementia is, and how many types there are.
What is Dementia and what are the causes?
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a variety of different conditions (or groups of symptoms) to do with the decline of a person’s neurological functions. Typically associated with old age, there are various types of Dementia that can take many different forms and affect people differently. But what causes Dementia and what are the symptoms to look out for?
Inside the brain, there are millions of neurones; nerve cells that transport chemical signals in order to “communicate”. Sometimes, these neurones can become damaged or start to break down, which is typically when someone will begin to exhibit symptoms of Dementia.
Because Dementia causes these nerve cells to deteriorate, messages can’t get around the brain properly, which then affects other functions of the body.
How many types of Dementia are there?
There are various different types of Dementia, all of which have slightly different symptoms and affect people in different ways.
This is the most common form of Dementia in those over 65, and is caused by a malfunction in two naturally-occurring proteins in the brain.
The second most common type of Dementia in those over 65, Vascular Dementia is caused by small blood clots forming in the brain, reducing the amount of oxygen reaching the brain tissue.
Frontotemporal dementia is caused by the death of nerve cells and pathways in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, affecting behaviour and personality.
Lewy Body Dementia
Lewy Body Dementia is caused by abnormal clumps of protein within the brain. Called Lewy bodies, these clumps can affect cognitive function as well as impact movement.
When someone is diagnosed with more than one type of Dementia, their condition is referred to as Mixed Dementia.
Young Onset Dementia
Young Onset Dementia (or Early Onset Dementia) is Dementia that is diagnosed in someone under the age of 65.
Huntington’s disease is a genetic disorder caused by a faulty gene that affects the areas of the brain responsible for movement, learning, cognition and emotions. Because of the damage caused to the brain, someone with Huntington’s Disease can develop Dementia in the later stages.
Parkinson’s Disease is caused by a loss of nerve cells in the part of the brain that’s linked to movement. As with Huntington’s Disease, someone with Parkinson’s Disease can go on to develop symptoms of Dementia as it progresses.
The first signs of Dementia: what to look out for
The early signs of Dementia are often mild, and may go unnoticed for some time. There are also several types of the illness, with other symptoms specific to each type. This means it may not be easy to initially spot the first signs and symptoms of Dementia. However, if symptoms persist or gradually worsen, or you suspect something is wrong, it’s best to seek medical advice as soon as possible for further support.
Common early signs of Dementia are:
• Memory loss, often impacting on daily life
• Fluctuating moods, or mood shifts that seem out of character
• Feeling confused about the date, time, and location
• Frequently struggling to search for the right word, or having trouble keeping up with conversation
• Difficulty in carrying out daily tasks, such as becoming confused over the correct change when shopping
These symptoms may not get worse, or can become more frequent very gradually. While these are often some of the first signs of Dementia, not everyone who experiences these symptoms will go on to develop the illness. If you or a loved one is concerned about memory loss or any other problems, it’s best to seek help from a GP right away.
Some of the first signs of the different types of Dementia include:
Signs of Alzheimer’s disease include:
• Becoming confused in unfamiliar surroundings
• Repeatedly asking the same, or similar, questions
• Having difficulty with tasks that include planning
• Difficulty finding the right words, or struggling with numbers
Signs of Vascular Dementia include:
• Mobility issues, including a change in the way a person walks
• Stroke-like symptoms such as muscle weakness or paralysis down one side of the body. Seek urgent medical attention if these symptoms are present
• Issues with attention span or reasoning
• A shift in emotional state, sometimes seen through depression
Signs of Dementia with Lewy bodies include:
• Visual hallucinations
• Frequent fainting episodes or falls
• Difficulty sleeping or repeated sleep disturbances
• Episodes of sleepiness or drowsiness
• Slow physical movements
Signs of Frontotemporal Dementia include:
• Issues with language, including struggling to find the right words or misunderstanding them
• Changes to their personality, potentially seeming more withdrawn or unempathetic
• Difficulty understanding social situations, making rude remarks or inappropriate jokes
• Obsessive tendencies, particularly with food or drink
Is forgetfulness always a sign of Dementia?
No, forgetfulness is not always a sign of Dementia. It’s normal to occasionally forget things, or make infrequent errors when paying bills, for example. This is somewhat expected and completely normal, but it shouldn’t interfere with your everyday life.
How to recognise early signs of Dementia
Keeping a watchful eye is one of the best ways to recognise the early signs of Dementia. If a mild symptom occurs once every now and then, it may well be nothing to worry about. If you notice one or more of the first signs of Dementia, and they are occurring fairly regularly or enough to interrupt daily life, it should be investigated by a doctor.
If you suspect yourself or a loved one is showing some of the first signs of Dementia, you might wish to keep a written log of every time a symptom occurs (each time they are confused about the time, for example). If forgetfulness is a symptom, it’s best to keep this log somewhere noticeable and make others aware of it. If you should approach a GP about the symptoms, this log may prove useful to the doctor in understanding the patterns of forgetfulness.
Living with Dementia: Can you live at home with Dementia?
Depending on the severity of the illness and the support available, it is absolutely possible to live at home with Dementia. Particularly in the early stages of Dementia, with the right care plan in place, many people prefer to continue living at home.
The benefits of living at home with Dementia
One of the most common symptoms of Dementia is confusion. While it can be scary to experience, there are ways to minimise the instances of confusion. One of the biggest benefits of living at home with Dementia is that you are in your own surroundings, which reduces the confusion often caused by a new environment. Some other benefits of living at home with Dementia include:
- Control over the environment – if specific labels are required, or there’s a need for help with particular tasks, the home can be easily adapted.
- Continuity of independent living – with living at home comes the ability to continue living independently as long as your family member prefers.
- Pets and companions are allowed – which isn’t usually the case in care or nursing homes.
- Routines stay the same – there’s no immediate dramatic shift in how the person lives their life, including routines or activities.
- Staying close to family and friends – there’s a good chance they are already located close to a support system. This way, they’re able to stay close.
Creating a Dementia-friendly home
As the illness progresses, it may become more difficult for someone with Dementia to look after themselves or their home. This is where adapting living spaces becomes useful and will help with maintaining independent living for as long as possible.
Some ways to create a Dementia-friendly home include:
Often people with Dementia can become confused or disorientated, and low lighting may make this worse. Having better lighting helps to reduce the risk of falls too, particularly in areas which are more dangerous such as the stairs and the toilet. Make sure that curtains are open during the day, there are no unnecessary blinds obscuring the light, and that trees and hedges are cut back away from windows. Keep light switches easily accessible and straightforward to use; you could even add glow in the dark strips to the wall above and below the switch to make sure they can be found even in low light. PIR lights (Passive Infrared Sensor) will automatically come on when someone passes them, and these can be a really helpful addition to a Dementia-friendly home.
Keep floors clear from tripping hazards, which includes rugs and mats on the floor where possible. Try to avoid shiny or reflective flooring, which could look wet and dangerous, or flooring that is slippery or becomes slippery easily. As Dementia can impair how we tell the difference between colours, try to keep flooring to a colour which contrasts the walls, as well as being a matt finish.
People living with Dementia can sometimes become overwhelmed with a sensory overload, such as lots of loud noises. To reduce excess noise, use soft furnishings (such as curtains, pillows and carpets) to absorb sound. Make sure the TV and radio are switched off if not in use too.
Labels and clear signs
Sometimes leaving labels with reminders on around the house is all that is needed. Other times, it might be useful to leave signs on the doors of rooms or cupboards. Leave signs in an obvious and easy-to-see place, with below eye-level being best for more elderly people as they tend to look down more often. Make sure the signs have large text, are bright and contrast the background, and include a relevant picture too.
Add Dementia-friendly household items
Another way to make living with Dementia a little easier is to add Dementia-friendly homeware to the house. This might include:
- Clocks with a large LED screen, audio function, or day/date display
- A wireless door sensor to alert if the doors are opened
- Large, simplified TV remote controls
- Personal GPS devices
- Telephones with large buttons
- Reminder devices for medicines or daily tasks
At this time, you may also consider organising with live-in or home care services to give added support with daily tasks and to check in on your family member regularly.