It’s an illness few want to talk about and even fewer can imagine themselves or their loved ones living with, but dementia is something that has huge impacts millions of families nationwide. It’s a progressive illness that affects memory, language and the ability to perform formerly routine tasks. It is a disease that moves only in one direction, and it is irreversible. This, of course, means that over time, patients with dementia lose the ability to take care of themselves, meaning assistance from and connections to family members become more important than ever before. For this reason, it is important for families to not only be educated about dementia, but also to know what to do after a dementia diagnosis.
“Dementia is not a normal part of aging. It is common, but not normal,” said Dr. Kevin James with Blount Senior Care Partners. “It’s a disease that has touched all families in some form or another, even if it was never given an actual medical name or treatment. In many cases, families already know how severe and life-changing a dementia diagnosis will be, but not all families have had the necessary education to be prepared for the amount of time and effort a dementia patient requires. Also, there are many different causes of dementia, and Alzheimer’s just happens to be the most-common cause. I hear very often ‘Thank God it’s just dementia and not Alzheimer’s,’ and I know that I have more education to do because Alzheimer’s is an illness that leads to a loss of brain cells, which leads to dementia,” he explained. “I find people are starved for information and answers, so even though I often end up giving them devastating news, they are very appreciative to learn more about what they’re up against,” he added.
“I try to be as honest as I can with people,” James said. “Very often by the time people see me, they have known something was wrong with their loved one for quite a while, so I’m simply confirming those suspicions and giving them a name. Initially, dementia patients will need more assistance with complex tasks, such as paying bills, driving, shopping, cooking, and administering their own medications. As the disease progresses, though, they need assistance with more basic tasks, such as dressing, using the bathroom and bathing. Ultimately, this can progress to them needing help with all types of self-care, including feeding themselves. Sometimes, in severe cases, patients lose the ability to communicate meaningfully and require 24/7 care,” he explained. “Medicines can be important and even helpful, but they are not the most important part of treating dementia, in my opinion. The medicines available do not stop the illness and do not prolong survival. We have growing evidence that a healthy diet and consistent physical activity actually can slow the progression of dementia,” he added.
If you feel your loved one may be experiencing dementia, James says talk to your family physician. “With mild dementia, patients very often do not show any symptoms during routine office visits, and primary care physicians will not know to dig deeper unless they get information from a family member,” he said. “The average life expectancy following a dementia diagnosis is four to eight years, though some patients can live as long as 20 years. Still, it is a terminal disease, and I’m always upfront with patients about that. I think it is vital that they understand the nature of the illness so that they and their families can assess how they wish to approach the years ahead. The focus often becomes quality of life rather than quantity of life,” he added.