When you hear the word ‘dementia,’ chances are it’s familiar to you because you likely know someone with it. Perhaps your own family member.
Approximately 5.7 million people over 65 in the US are living with dementia*—including its most common form, Alzheimer’s disease—which can significantly impact the quality of life of the entire family. The more you understand about the symptoms, behaviors, and stages of dementia, the better equipped you’ll be to care for your loved one and everyone else in the family affected by it.
What is dementia?
Dementia is not a specific disease. Rather, it’s a general term that describes a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person's ability to perform everyday activities. The varying symptoms are broadly grouped into categories called stages. These stages help guide doctors and families in their care of dementia patients.
Although there is no clear-cut moment when you know that your loved one has moved from one stage to another, the stages act as a marker of how far the disease has progressed. Becoming familiar with the stages of dementia can help guide your expectations and help you decide what kind of care is needed and when to seek assistance, such as that of an elder home care professional.
At this stage, a person may function independently. He or she may still drive, work, and be part of social activities. Despite this, the person may feel as if he or she is having memory lapses, such as forgetting familiar words or the location of everyday objects. You may notice they:
- Have changes in short-term memory
- Lost interest in things they used to enjoy
- Have a shorter attention span
- Have trouble with balancing checkbook
- Have difficulty with routine tasks
- Can’t find proper words
- Start making bad decisions
The middle stage is typically the longest stage and can last for many years. You may notice the person is confusing words, getting frustrated or angry, or acting in unexpected ways, such as refusing to bathe. Damage to nerve cells in the brain can make it difficult to express thoughts and perform routine tasks. You may also notice they:
- Do not want to change clothing
- Are ambivalent about social graces
- Have difficulty recognizing or using common objects
- Do not have good posture
- Have knowledge of only the past
- Have an increase in memory loss
- Experience sleep disturbances
- Get lost easily
- Need help with activities of daily living (eg, bathing, dressing)
- Are confused about time
- Need constant supervision
In the final stage, individuals lose the ability to respond to their environment, to carry on a conversation and, eventually, to control movement. They may still say words or phrases, but communicating becomes difficult. As memory and cognitive skills continue to worsen, personality changes may take place and individuals need extensive help with daily activities. You may notice they:
- Wear clothes inappropriately
- Lost their social graces
- Look “lost in thought”
- Have severe speech or language deficits
- Have lost weight
- Cannot communicate needs
- Have lost motor skills such as walking and eating independently
- Experience bladder and bowel incontinence
- Have problems swallowing
- Cannot express meaningful speech anymore
- Do not recognize self or family
Although the progression of dementia can vary widely from person to person, caring for a loved one with moderate to severe dementia is very challenging. Seeking the assistance of a professional trained in dementia care—such as an elder home caregiver—is key to keeping loved one safe and giving you the peace of mind you need.
* Alzheimer’s Association, 2018