Understanding Dementia and Alzheimers

We all worry about being forgetful, misplacing keys, articles or forgetting appointments.  As we grow older, we nearly accept that it is part of aging, but that is not the case.  Very little is known about Dementia and Alzheimers disease, so their affects are often a mystery to family, carers and patients themselves. Dementia is a group of symptoms that affect mental tasks, like memory and reasoning. Dementia and Alzheimers are often confused and the difference  between the two, while related, are completely different.

According to the National Institute for Aging (NIA),  Dementia is a brain disorder that affects communication and performance of daily activities. It is an umbrella term that refers to a group of physical and mental symptoms that are severe enough to interfere with a person’s daily functions. Some of the recognised symptoms include memory loss, poor judgement, confusion, and changes in personality and mood.  People who suffer with dementia may also lose their ability to solve problems or control their emotions. Other problems include difficulty with co-ordination and motor functions, paranoia, agitation, hallucinations and withdrawal from the outside world and not wanting social connection or activities.

In order to be diagnosed with dementia a person must show serious problems with brain function such as memory and language. A person can be diagnosed by blood tests, mental status evaluations, neuropsychological testing and brain scans.  In 90% of cases doctors can diagnose accurately the cause of the dementia symptoms.  Dementia is a major cause of disability in older people and places huge burdens on care givers or family members.

Early signs

The early signs of dementia can be as simple as forgetfulness, keeping track of time, or losing their way in familiar settings. As it progresses, forgetfulness and confusion grows.  It becomes harder to recall names and faces and personal care becomes a problem. Obvious signs of dementia include repetitious questioning, inadequate hygiene and poor decision making. As dementia advances patients become unable to care for themselves and time, place and people become more confusing. Behaviour continues to change and can turn to depression or aggression. However, normal aging, stress, depression or the side effects of medication can all add to forgetfulness and need not be dementia. Strokes, heart disease, or chronic drug use are all possible causes also.  If a patient has problems with vitamin deficiency or taking drugs with side effects that causes dementia, these can be reversed or may be temporary.



Alzheimers is a specific form of dementia that affects the part of the brain that controls thought, memory and language. It is not reversible. It is degenerative and incurable. Patients have a high risk of changing behaviours, acting out of character and personality change. Memory, emotions, comprehension and judgement  will be affected by the progression of Alzheimers. It is important to understand that Alzheimers is a medical condition and a disease of the brain. The range of symptoms are enormous and as the patient don’t look sick and their appearance remains the same, until later on, this can be very confusing for carers and family members. Coming to terms that your loved one has an incurable disease is an uncomfortable place to be, even if the signs were adding up for some time.

Warning signs

Recognising warning signs and the need to take action starts with memory loss that disrupts daily life. The person’s short- term memory is usually affected and they tend to forget recent information, names and events. They find it challenging when their ability to do normal simple things become difficult, like dealing with money, household tasks or to follow a plan. They may have trouble finding familiar places or driving to locations that they should know. Being confused with times and places, losing track of dates, seasons and the passage of time. They also have trouble with conversations and have difficulties understanding what people are saying. A constant problem is misplacing things or losing the ability to retrace steps or placing things in random places and accusing others of stealing items.  Leaving doors unlocked or open when going out and without telling other members of the household. They suffer changes  in mood and personality changes at very low stress levels that can make them over-react to seemingly ordinary situations.  They become suspicious, confused, fearful, anxious and depressed. They become easily upset at home, at work or in places where they are out of their comfort zone.  It is a difficult disease for carers to manage and also for family members who are not recognised and even told to leave when they visit.

Caring for the carers

The demands of caring for a person with either Dementia or Alzheimers can force one to focus all their energies on their care, at a peril to their own health. Neglecting your own health could be a costly mistake. It is imperative that the carer takes extra care of the energy and health needed to survive the challenge of the vigilance of minding someone with Alzheimer or Dementia.

Research shows that many people start neglecting their own care when they are caring for others. Making sure you get enough sleep, exercising, eating proper meals and having regular check-ups. Taking all the support offered and looking for support where it can be got.

If there is a support group in your area, contact  them as you can learn from their sharing of experiences. Let go of guilt  and ensure that respite is available to give the carers a break from a mammoth task. Be specific and be grateful for all help given and offered. Every type of help relieves the burden of constant caring and uncertainties, surrounding the behaviour of the patient.