Tips on How to Deal with Dementia in a Parent

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Living with a person who has dementia is challenging. You lose the person you once knew and loved. Seeing the person’s gradual decline into forgetfulness and lack of awareness is tough on caregivers. Understanding dementia’s different forms and causes can help you care for your loved one.

What Is the Difference Between Dementia and Alzheimer’s?

Dementia is the loss of cognitive function, including remembering, thinking, and reasoning. Functions lost to dementia are language skills, memory, visual perception, self-management, critical thinking skills, and focus and attention. Dementia affects other functions, including abstract thought, emotional regulation, mood swings, and stamina. These losses in cognitive function interfere with the activities of daily life. Alzheimer’s is a common cause of dementia. Dementia is not a specific disease, but a condition caused by diseases.

Types of Dementia

Dementia is not one disease, but numerous diseases. The most common diseases causing dementia are:

Huntington’s Disease

Huntington’s disease is a disease that causes the brain to lose its nerve cells. Loss of brain nerve cells can affect the part of the brain regulating mood, movement, and cognitive skills.

Vascular Dementia

Vascular dementia is brain damage from impaired blood flow to the brain. People can develop vascular dementia after a stroke blocks arteries in the brain. Strokes, however, do not always cause vascular dementia. Factors increasing the risk of vascular dementia are high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, and high cholesterol.

Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus

Normal pressure hydrocephalus is a situation where too much fluid can build up in the ventricles of the brain. The risk factors for this problem are being over 60 years, having a brain infection, head injuries, brain tumors, or brain surgery.

Lewy Body Dementia

Lewy body dementia is a progressive dementia disease. Lewy bodies are protein deposits that develop in nerve cells in the brain regions. Risk factors are being older than 60 and being male, and having a family member with Lewy body dementia or Parkinson’s disease increases the risk.

Frontotemporal Dementia

Frontotemporal dementia is where the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain shrink. This shrinkage of the lobes can affect behavior and physical ability. Risk factors may be genetic, but scientists are not certain about the causes.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob 

Creutzfeldt-Jakob (CJD) is a brain disorder that leads to dementia and death. The disease has several risk factors but is rare. Risk factors are sporadic, with most people with CJD developing the disease without any reason. Fewer than 15% of people with CJD have a family history of the disorder. Few people develop CJD after being exposed to infection during medical procedures. A rare transmission form is from eating contaminated beef. Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s symptoms are rapid mental deterioration, difficulty speaking and swallowing, and sudden, jerky movements. Death usually occurs within a year of disease onset.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) has two phases: Wernicke encephalopathy, a sudden and severe (acute) brain disorder, and Korsakoff syndrome, a long-term memory disorder. Risk factors include alcohol use interfering with the ability to absorb vitamins necessary for health. Other reasons for malabsorption are risk factors such as side effects from chemotherapy, kidney failure, or genetic factors.

Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is a brain disorder that destroys memory, thinking skills, and the ability to do everyday tasks. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common dementia cause for older adults. Plaques and tangles that develop in the brain are the main signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Another feature is losing connections between nerve cells in the brain.

Tips on How to Deal With Dementia in a Parent

Caring for a parent with dementia can sometimes become immense and overwhelming, with your responsibilities changing as your loved one’s symptoms progress. You can make your parent feel safe and comfortable while you continue to enjoy and cherish their presence. Some ways to help your parent are:

Patience

Helping someone with dementia means they may not respond to you as quickly as they once responded. Be patient and have greater blocks of time to care for your parent with dementia. Schedule care and time with your parent when you are not rushed or have multiple priorities. Ask for help from other people to create a slower-paced schedule.

Awareness of Hygiene

Caring for a parent with dementia means they can often not care for their basic hygiene needs. Be aware you might have to help them with hygiene situations such as brushing their teeth, helping them go to the bathroom, and bathing.

Avoiding Isolation

People with dementia still need a social life, but one where the person is not overwhelmed with many people at the same time. Visit with the person in small groups and shorten your stay if your parent seems tired.

Quiet and Calm

Quiet and calm environments are best for people with dementia. Remove background noise as much as possible, including loud music, rooms where many people gather, or being around loud pets. Soft music is sometimes helpful to create a calm atmosphere.

Furry Companions

If your parent liked pets before dementia, visits with animals such as cats or dogs can be beneficial to their mood. According to a Frontiers in Psychology study about the positive effects of pets, interacting with pets can reduce stress, promote calmness, and create an environment of well-being.

How to Recognize Dementia Symptoms

You may suspect your loved one has symptoms of dementia, but getting a diagnosis from a health professional is essential. Symptoms of dementia vary depending on the dementia type. Some symptoms are specific to the diseases that lead to dementia:

Huntington’s Disease

Huntington’s disease symptoms are behavioral changes including irritability, hallucinations, and psychosis. People with Huntington’s disease have abnormal muscle movements, especially the face, head, arms, and legs. Other problems are speech, memory, and judgment. Death comes from complications such as aspiration pneumonia, heart failure, or injuries associated with falls.

Vascular Dementia

Symptoms of vascular dementia include confusion, reduced ability to organize thoughts or actions, trouble paying attention and concentrating, and a decline in the ability to analyze a situation, communicate, and develop effective plans. Slowed thinking, difficulty with organization, difficulty deciding what to do next, and problems with memory are symptoms of vascular dementia. Restlessness and agitation, unsteady gait, sudden or frequent urge to urinate or inability to control passing urine, depression, and apathy are also symptoms.

Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus

Symptoms include poor balance, falling, changes in gait, forgetfulness and confusion, mood changes, depression, difficulty responding to questions, and loss of bladder control.

Lewy Body Dementia

Symptoms of Lewy body dementia include rigid muscles, slow movement, tremors, and walking difficulty. Hallucinations, poor body functions, and problems with blood pressure can occur. Loss of bladder and bowel control are symptoms. Confusion, poor attention, visual-spatial, and memory loss can also be present. Emotional symptoms include depression and anxiety.

Frontotemporal Dementia

Frontotemporal dementia is where the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain shrink. This shrinkage of the lobes can affect behavior and physical ability. Symptoms include inappropriate behavior, lack of judgment, eating inappropriate objects, and speech and language problems. Tremors and other muscle problems are also symptoms.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease Symptoms

CJD symptoms are rapid mental deterioration with personality changes, impaired thinking, memory loss, and insomnia. Difficulty speaking, swallowing, and sudden, jerky movements are also symptoms. Blurred vision or blindness occurs. 

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

WKS symptoms include vision changes with double vision, eye movement abnormalities, and eyelid drooping. There is a loss of muscle coordination and unsteady walking. Loss of memory, inability to form new memories, and hallucinations are also symptoms of WKS.

Alzheimer’s Disease

People who have Alzheimer’s decline in stages:

Early Stages

  • Becoming less flexible and more reluctant to try new things
  • Forgetting place and object names
  • Memory loss
  • Mislaying items
  • Repeating themselves in conversation

Middle-Stage Symptoms

  • Agnosia, unable to process sensory information
  • Aphasia, problems with speech or language
  • Changes in mood such as mood swings, depression, anxiety, frustration, or agitation
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Delusions
  • Difficulty with spatial tasks, such as judging distances
  • Distressed sleep
  • Obsessive, repetitious, or impulsive behavior

Later Symptoms

  • Considerable weight loss or gain 
  • Difficulty moving around without assistance
  • Loss of speech
  • Problems with short- and long-term memory

Resources:

Dementia. The Mayo Clinic provides extensive information about dementia, including descriptions of symptoms and causes, as well as diagnosis and treatment options. 

Ten Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s. This guide from the Alzheimer’s Association includes warning signs to look for and advice for next steps if you notice signs of dementia.

Dementia Mentors. The mission of Dementia Mentors is to help people with dementia stay social.

The Lewy Body Dementia Association (LBDA): The LDBA is an association dedicated to helping end LDBA and acting as a resource for caregivers and those who have LBDA.

Caregiver Action Network’s Family Caregiver Toolbox. The Caregiver Toolbox, while not specific for dementia patients and caregivers, is a resource to help caregivers help their loved ones.

What Is Ambiguous Loss?

Ambiguous loss is loss without closure. While death is final when you no longer have someone physically around, dementia gradually takes away the person you knew. Losing the person you knew to dementia can cause you to have ambivalent grief, where you still care for the person who is physically present, but also need to care for the person who is not cognitively or behaviorally the same as they once were before dementia.

Ways to Cope with Grief and Loss Due to Dementia

Acceptance

Accepting your parent’s dementia is essential to helping you cope with your parent’s condition. Denying the reality of your parent’s dementia stalls your parent from getting essential help for dementia. While early intervention for dementia won’t cure your parent’s condition, early intervention can help your parent access health care and resources to make dementia less frightening and more manageable. Early intervention in dementia cases also helps you as a caregiver with access to resources and professional help.

Understand Dementia Decline

Part of acceptance is understanding that your parent’s condition will not get better. Knowing dementia will take over your parent’s life will help you prepare for managing future care needs and the inevitability of your parent’s death.

Research

Learn more about dementia, its causes, symptoms, and what resources you have available in your community and nationally. Learning more about dementia helps you to have informed decisions as a caregiver and for your loved one’s health.

Don’t Isolate Yourself

“Going it alone” is not good for your parent or for you. Ask other family members to help with your parent’s care. If you don’t have a family to help you, look for community resources for help. You and your parent will be healthier if you ask for help.

Take Care of Yourself

Caregiver burnout is real. When you are not getting enough sleep, food, exercise, and emotional care for yourself, you can become exhausted. Fatigue can lead to poor decision making for yourself and your parent. Find ways to take care of yourself every day by getting a cup of coffee, listening to your favorite music, reading, talking to a friend, or doing other self-care activities.

Can You Prevent Dementia?

Some lifestyle choices can play roles in helping to prevent dementia. Not smoking, avoiding drug abuse and alcohol use, getting exercise, staying intellectually challenged, getting enough sleep, and maintaining a healthy weight can help you avoid dementia. These lifestyle changes, however, are not a cure-all or absolute preventative against dementia. Genetics are involved in some dementia forms. Science also has yet to puzzle out reasons for all dementia forms, but being aware of the symptoms and living a healthy lifestyle can give you or your loved one awareness and the ability to cope with dementia.

Living with someone who has dementia is hard. Help is available for you and your parent who has dementia. Medical and community resources are available.

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