Memory Support - January 26, 2021

Understanding the Signs and Stages of Dementia

Changes in memory are a natural part of aging. As our bodies age, so do our brains. It can take longer to recall names or events from the past. However, some cognitive changes are not part of the normal aging process. Understanding the signs and stages of dementia can help you plan and prepare for the future.

Age-related Memory Loss

Simple forgetfulness (where are my keys?), having trouble remembering names, or finding the correct word in a conversation are not indicators of serious memory loss. It is common for older adults (even younger adults!) to become distracted, forget appointments, or find it difficult to multi-task.

As we age, the hippocampus, a region of the brain responsible for memory, begins to deteriorate which contributes to age-related memory loss. Decreased hormone production and blood flow to the brain, as well as certain medications, can also lead to changes in memory.

Memory problems that begin to regularly interfere with normal everyday life can be an indicator of Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) or dementia. Read more about the difference between normal aging and dementia.

Dementia is a general term that refers to a decline in cognitive function that significantly impacts your ability to perform activities of daily living. Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia. Both dementia and Alzheimer’s disease impact memory, language, attention, reasoning, and judgment. Because Alzheimer’s has a specific pathology, the signs and stages referred to in this article are related to general dementia, although they are frequently present in someone living with Alzheimer’s disease as well.

Signs and stages of dementia include both cognitive changes and psychological changes. Signs of dementia include:

  • Difficulty performing simple tasks like paying bills, taking medications, dressing appropriately.
  • Forgetting how to do things they have done many times – this could be a hobby, using their phone, cooking, or driving.
  • Losing awareness of their memory loss.
  • Displaying poor judgment or behaving in socially inappropriate ways.
  • Getting lost or disoriented and not being able to follow directions.
  • Misusing language, forgetting words, and repeating phrases in the same conversation.
  • Anxiety, depression, paranoia, or hallucinations.

Signs and stages of dementia can vary depending on what changes are occurring in the brain. There are many types of dementia and it’s important to see a doctor and get a precise diagnosis so you can understand treatment options and plan and prepare for the future. Read more about memory screening and keeping a healthy memory.

Stages of Dementia

In general terms, dementia can be classified into early, middle, or late-stage, which can also be referred to as mild, moderate, and severe dementia stages. The Alzheimer’s Association and some health care providers use the 7 Stages of Alzheimer’s disease as a framework for understanding the progression of Alzheimer’s related dementia.

In the early or mild stage of dementia, people are still able to function somewhat independently. They might forget things or have trouble focusing but it does not prevent them from managing life. As the dementia progresses, disruption to their lives will begin to occur on a daily basis resulting in a need for assistance with some tasks. In this stage, increased confusion, poor judgment, changes in personality and behavior may occur. They may begin to withdraw from family and friends, and although they are aware of their memory issues, they will often deny it. One common symptom in the middle stage of dementia is sundowning – increased confusion, agitation, and irritability that occurs when daylight fades. Sundowning can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to being awake at night and sleeping more during the day.

In the severe or late stage of dementia, individuals will experience loss of physical abilities. They may lose their ability to communicate, lose control of their bladder or bowel functions, even their ability to walk, sit up or eat. They may begin hallucinating and may not recognize their spouse or children. They will not understand time or seasons or be able to dress appropriately for the weather. In this late stage of dementia, wandering or elopement becomes a risk. A person may wander around the house attempting to complete a task yet not do anything. They may go out the front door for the mail, forget what they went outside for, then not remember where they live.

Supporting Someone Living with Dementia

People living with dementia will progress through the stages at different times and experience a variety of symptoms. One day they may acknowledge their need for help and the next day they might refuse it. In order to plan and prepare for the future, it is important to understand the signs and stages of dementia, however, it is equally important to get a dementia diagnosis from a doctor. Starting with a family doctor is a good first step, but seeing a neurologist, someone who specializes in disorders of the brain, is important as well. Once you have a diagnosis, supporting your loved one starts with planning for the future.

Having a conversation with your loved one about who will make healthcare decisions and deal with finances as the disease progresses is a good second step. This is a difficult conversation, and you may have to have it several times as the dementia progresses. You will also want to discuss how your loved one would prefer their care needs be met. Do they want a family member to provide care? Would they prefer hiring a home health care agency? Would they prefer living in a memory support community? Again, this is an ongoing conversation but one that you will want to have sooner rather than later.

Joining a dementia or Alzheimer’s support group, learning about caregiving options like adult daycare or respite care and researching nearby memory support communities will also help you prepare for the future.

Memory Care Services at Villagio Senior Living

It is difficult seeing a loved one struggle with memory loss. Villagio Senior Living offers a personalized approach to dementia care that benefits the individual and supports the family through the journey as well. Our unique Rhythms Dementia Program centers around each individual’s natural rhythms in life and creates an environment where they can thrive, and you can have peace of mind knowing your loved one is receiving the support they need.

Find a Villagio Senior Living memory support neighborhood near you.

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