Dementia affecting a loved one - Spotting the early signs

There are tens of thousands of carers across the UK – unsung heroes who give time and effort unselfishly to help their loved one. Caring for a loved one with dementia can be a daunting and draining task. Here's some tips and steps you can take to help slow the encroachment of dementia

As we live longer with each passing decade, diseases of old age become more of a worry. However, dementia isn’t inevitable -  19 out of 20 over 65s and 4 in 5 over 80s aren’t afflicted with dementia.

Who gets dementia?

The only factor which will definitely increase your loved one’s risk of dementia is advancing age. We don’t know what causes Alzheimer’s disease, the commonest form of dementia. We know it doesn’t run in families and doesn’t affect any one group more than another.  The second most common kind of dementia is ‘vascular dementia’, and the risk of this is increased by high blood pressure, raised cholesterol, smoking and excess alcohol.

What are the early symptoms?

Memory does tend to wane with age, but this is different from the memory loss of dementia. Signs to look out for include:

  • Memory loss – particularly more recent events, while memories of many years ago are unaffected
  • Losing the ability to learn new skills (e.g. how to work a new household gadget)
  • Getting lost easily and becoming disorientated
  • Irritability or behaving out of character

Where can I get help?

There are tens of thousands of carers across the UK – unsung heroes who give time and effort unselfishly to help their loved one. The huge value of carers is increasingly being recognised, and as a carer you’re entitled to a carer’s assessment to look at your needs to. Your GP or local Social Services department can tell you where you can get help. Services range from more help with particular tasks to finding a daycentre for your loved one, to give you a few hours a week to yourself or just to deal with essential tasks without interruption. You can also ask about respite placements, to give you a break for a few days.

You can also contact Carers UK (20 Great Dover Street, London SE1 4LX, helpline 0808 808 7777) who provide support and practical advice for anyone caring for a frail, disabled or sick friend or relative at home.

My loved one has early dementia – how can I help?

You help just by being there. People with dementia are often scared of the unfamiliar, and having you around will offer huge comfort and reassurance.

Give them a routine and a reality check.
A ‘page a day’ large print calendar next to the clock in a prominent place at home will remind your loved one regularly of time and season. People with dementia often get anxious if their routine is changed, so try to have regular mealtimes, bedtimes and other routines

It’s good to talk.
We all know communicating is good, but in dementia talking to your loved one, sharing simple puzzles and just stimulating their brains is a recognised treatment. Talking about the past may be easier for them

Get out and about.
People with dementia often become immobile, speeding up their physical decline. Regular walks – ideally on a familiar route, with some stimulating scenery along the way – will exercise their body as well as their mind. Do be aware that you’ll need to keep a careful eye on them – people with dementia often wander off and get lost, which they find very distressing

What treatments are available?

Although there is no cure for dementia, there are several treatments which can slow down the disease in some people with Alzheimer’s. Fortunately, these medicines can now be prescribed at an early stage – until 2011, they could only be given to people with moderate or severe dementia. They don’t work for everyone, so your loved one would be given a trial of treatment and followed up to see if they were helping before giving them long term.
For vascular dementia – the second most common type – these dementia drugs don’t help. However, keeping blood pressure and cholesterol levels well controlled can slow down worsening of symptoms.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where parts of this article was originally published.

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Dr Sarah is unable to provide medical advice or respond directly to questions concerning your health. If you have health concerns we recommend contacting your GP.