Understanding Dementia

A young girl sits with her grandmother, trying to help herself in understanding dementia.
Caregivers and friends of those with dementia have a responsibility to educate themselves on this condition.

While we all have lapses in memory when we search for our keys or forget a name, dementia interferes with a person’s ability to engage in daily activities. It’s not just a slowing down from age, but a progressive, permanent loss of memory, communication and language skills, as well as the inability to reason and judge.

When her mother’s dementia progressed, Mary hired two professional caregivers to provide respite care while she went grocery shopping or to simply get a break. While the professionals treated Mary’s mother like any other patient, it was a young volunteer who treated her like a true friend.

Understanding Dementia

“During the last year of her life, a 19-year-old named Julia from our church became my mom’s friend, ally and co-conspirator,” Mary recalls. “Once or twice a week, Julia would pick her up and they’d have lunch, ice cream, shop, and have their nails done – Mom’s lifelong favorite activities. 

“They’d come home laughing with newly purchased floppy hats and stories of their adventures. In hospice, during her last few days on earth, Mom said, ‘I love you’ to Julia as many times as she did to us her daughters.” 

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, dementia is not a specific disease, but a term that covers a range of symptoms stemming from a decline in memory or thinking skills. While the basic path of the disease is fairly consistent, the symptoms will differ from person to person. 

Dr. Benjamin Mast, author of Second Forgetting: Remembering the Power of the Gospel during Alzheimer’s Disease, says that as we go about our days, we constantly form new memories; some we’ll remember later, others we will not. The brain of a person with dementia can neither form these new memories, nor recall them. However, many past memories – like seeing a puppy, smelling freshly baked bread, tasting a Hershey’s Kiss or feeling the ribbing on a football – can still be triggered. 

Life Can Still Be Joyful

Jolene Brackey, author of Creating Moments of Joy Along the Alzheimer’s Journey, says you can create a moment of joy for a person with dementia not by asking what they ate for lunch, but bringing up the familiar: “You love chocolate cake,” or “Your daughter has red hair like you!” 

As caregivers and friends of those with dementia, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves on this condition. Take the opportunity to ask about their lives – what makes them happy, what makes them sad. Form friendships around the unique characteristics a person with dementia brings to the table, and explore the details of their story. 

Depending on their neurological condition, you might have to ask friends and family instead. In the latter stages of her dementia, my mother lived in the memories of her childhood, and her family heard new, never-before-told stories. We got to know a different side of her! 

Sarah Smith shares the heartbreaking story of navigating her mother’s journey with Early-Onset Alzheimer’s disease and how we can better understand issues like dementia and Alzheimers.

More articles on understanding dementia and elder care:

Understanding Dementia And The Brain

Dementia can strike different areas of the brain, and Alzheimer’s accounts for 60 percent to 80 percent of dementia cases. With Alzheimer’s, proteins in the brain begin to act abnormally and make it difficult for brain cells to stay healthy and communicate with one another. The first hard-hit area is typically the hippocampus, the region of the brain associated with memory and learning. 

If you suspect someone is having problems with their memory, your family physician can probably help you arrange for testing and refer you to a doctor who specializes in treating people who are aging. There are also cases of early onset Alzheimer’s affecting people in their 50s and 60s. 

While there is currently no cure for dementia, some drugs might help with the symptoms or slow down the progression of the disease. The life expectancy of a person with Alzheimer’s varies and can range from a matter of months to a couple of decades. The average expectancy is about seven years. 

Over time, an individual with dementia usually experiences profound and ongoing loss of memory and thinking skills. Social relationships often suffer, especially as friends pull away. (This made Julia’s relationship with Mary’s mother so special.) 

Heartbreaking But Hopeful

Dr. John Dunlop, a physician specializing in geriatrics and author of Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia, says someone with dementia might feel alienated, apathetic, bored, depressed, dominated, embarrassed, fearful, frustrated, hopeless, ignored, inattentive, irritable, lonely, meaningless, sleep disturbed, suspicious and paranoid. 

That’s quite a list, but it shouldn’t prevent those afflicted from participating in church or the community at large. People with dementia can fully participate in life and in relationships. They can still serve, still love and still minister to others in deep ways. 

“They may forget what they had for breakfast this morning,” says Dr. Mast, “but other systems are less affected. Parts of their brain can access stories from long ago. Continue to engage them in conversation, and concentrate on what they still can do.” 

If you or someone you know is struggling with the impact of Alzheimer’s or dementia on family relationships, Focus on the Family has a staff of licensed professional counselors available who would welcome the opportunity to speak with you. Simply call 855-771-HELP (4357) weekdays between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. (Mountain Time) and a Family Help Center staff member will set up a free phone consult

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