March 29, 2016
Dementia is one of the most difficult illnesses to watch somebody go through. However, identifying the disease during the early stages can provide the patient and caregiver with time to emotionally and adequately prepare for the many emotional challenges ahead. Be on the lookout for these early signs of dementia so you can effectively assist your loved one as they battle this progressive disease:
This is one of the most common symptoms of dementia. The inability to remember important dates, names, or events, or even the faces of loved ones can be cause for concern. Short-term memory, especially, can be affected. Individuals with dementia, for example, might be able to recite a poem they learned in high school verbatim, yet not recall what they ate for lunch an hour ago. Repeatedly forgetting where they left something, not remembering why they walked into a particular room of the house -- these are classic early warning signs.
Many individuals with dementia find themselves having difficulty having conversations. Where they were once fluent, articulate and talkative, they now search in vain for the correct thing to say, and, in frustration at not being able to express ideas, stay silent. Clinicians sometimes refer to this evaporation of cognitive and language function as “losing knowledge.”
Making mistakes with a checkbook or everyday household budget is something everyone does occasionally. However, if an elderly parent seems to have consistently lost the ability to manage money, it could signal dementia, and be a reason for intervention.
Often, with the onset of dementia, formerly meticulous and tidy people can have a marked change in habits regarding their appearance – neatly combed hair will be messy, once spotless items of clothing are mismatched or in disarray. The concern with one’s personal appearance changes with dementia.
Not caring about activities and people whom an individual used to be excited about can be an early sign of dementia. There tends to be an emotional “flatness” in the early stages of the disease, which can be a tipoff to family members that something is amiss.
Dementia can bring with it mood swings – periods of depression and/or agitation that can seem to come out of nowhere, and for no good reason. Mood and impulse control, and a lack of empathy toward others can be important markers too. The making of comments that are careless or hurtful to others, a lack of awareness or sensitivity toward what others are saying or feeling and a shortening of attention span resulting in impatience can also be clues.
Adult children of parents with dementia often report an obsession with ritualistic, if innocent, behaviors, such as the desire on the part of one elderly woman to fold towels endlessly. Extreme cases of so-called hoarding can also be indicative of dementia. For example, the insisted, repeated buying of shampoo at the store when there at 25 bottles in the bathroom cupboard at home.
Medical clinicians call this phenomenon “reduced gaze,” which is defined as the tendency to visually fix on a spot in the distance, and not track moving objects with the eye. In fact, in the case of staring, dementia has usually damaged an elderly person’s ability to move his or her eyes normally.
The cliché image of a person with dementia is someone who is agitated and difficult – and this can sometimes be true, but it’s by no means universal. There are other, more subtle signs that you should be aware of that could signal dementia in an aging loved one: missing sarcasm in conversation; a typical disregard for the law and traditional ways of doing things; confusion about date and time; following simple directions; difficulty following a storyline in a conversation or on television; and the repetition of stories that you’ve already heard a dozen times, can all be behavior-markers for dementia.
Unfortunately, health professionals don’t have a cure for irreversible dementia. But management of the disease can be helped by always-improving medications. Additionally, counseling can be enormously helpful not only by providing relief to patients with anxiety or emotional challenges because of their disease but as support to concerned caregivers and loving family members too.
Note: The symptoms listed in this article should not be taken as hard evidence of the onset of dementia. But alone and in tandem, they can serve as clues, markers, and prompts for further testing of a family member whose thinking is impaired or whose mental abilities may be in decline.