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Understanding dementia – a guide for people worried about loved ones

Posted on 20/05/2015

As our parents and loved ones get older, we start to worry about the future and the problems that they may face. Ageing sadly brings with it an increased risk of certain ailments and injuries, but one that concerns all of us is dementia.

We have put together a guide to help those who are concerned about the condition and how it may affect family members.

What is dementia?

Dementia is a term that describes the symptoms caused by a number of different conditions that can affect the brain. These symptoms include things like memory loss and a decline in the ability to think, solve problems or use language. Dementia is progressive, meaning that the symptoms will worsen over time, but the rate at which this happens is different from person to person, as are the specific ways in which the dementia affects mental ability.  The initial symptoms can be quite mild and could go unnoticed. The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, which is a physical disease that leads to a build up of proteins in the brain causing ‘plaques’ or ‘tangles’. This leads to a loss of connections between the nerve cells, which can eventually die and lead to a loss of brain tissue. Other causes of dementia include vascular dementia and fronto-temporal dementia, as well as rarer conditions. Alzheimer’s Society has a good overview of all the different types of dementia, as well as a fact sheet on dementia symptoms.

Who does it affect?

There are certain risk factors that could increase a person’s chance of developing dementia, however there is no one specific cause. Those over the age of 65 are more likely to develop dementia, but age alone is not a cause. It is thought that in 2015, around 850,000 people will suffer from dementia in the UK alone. Of these, around 40,000 are younger sufferers. Projections suggest that there will be 1 million sufferers by 2025. Two thirds of these people are women, which could suggest that women are more susceptible. However, women live longer than men in general, and one in six people over the age of 80 have dementia.*

Are there any ways to prevent the onset of dementia?

There are certain things that you can do to lower your risk of developing dementia, and the sooner you start, the better. You should eat a healthy, balanced diet (see our article looking at whether a Mediterranean diet is best for preventing dementia), with plenty of fruit and vegetables. You should exercise regularly, to your own ability, even if that is gentle walking. You should limit your intake of alcohol and stop smoking if you do so. By doing this, you should be able to maintain a healthy weight and keep your blood pressure down. While these suggestions are no guarantee that you won’t develop dementia, they help you lead an overall healthier lifestyle, which can ward off a number of age-related problems.

Is there a cure?

Countries around the world are ploughing money into dementia research in the hope of finding a cure.  There are often promising articles in the media that show studies nearing a breakthrough, and certainly a lot more is known about the disease than ever before. For now, however, there is no cure.

There are treatments that can help with the symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. This includes certain drugs and non-drug treatments, like CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy).

How is dementia diagnosed?

Memory loss is associated with ageing, but it is not always a sign of dementia. As such, it can be difficult to diagnose dementia before it starts to progress. If you are worried about yourself or a family member, then you should visit a GP to talk through your concerns. From here, you may be referred to a specialist who can carry out certain tests, talking to the patient, examining them, performing brain scans or memory tests.

A family member has been diagnosed with dementia and I feel like there is nothing I can do.

It can be difficult to hear that someone you love has dementia, but it is important to support them and help them, and yourself, understand the disease, the future implications and the treatments available. The more you know, the less daunting it can seem. You should go with your loved one to see a specialist, who can answer any questions that you have. Try to remain positive and focus on ways that you can help your loved one to stay independent and active. Especially in the early stages, dementia doesn’t have the stop someone from carrying on with their life and the hobbies that they enjoy. If your family member is struggling with the diagnosis, then consider counselling so that they can share their concerns. When the news has sunk in a bit, you can have an open and honest discussion about dementia and what the person’s wishes are for the future, especially the type of care they might want to receive if they need it.

This useful factsheet from Alzheimer’s Society has much more information about the sorts of things you need to consider after a diagnosis.  

What sort of care should I consider for a parent with dementia? Is residential care inevitable?

There is a widely held belief that dementia inevitably means that a person will one day end up in residential care. This belief is often supported by the fact that 80 per cent of people living in a care home have some form of dementia. However, overall two thirds of people with the disease actually live in the community not in residential care.* This is a reassuring statistic, as for someone who is suffering with dementia, having familiar surroundings can help them to feel more comfortable.

You may want to take on caring for your loved one yourself and you would be one of many thousands of people who care for someone with dementia. This might be popping in weekly or daily as needed to help with tasks that they can no longer cope with, or it might be moving them into your home for more regular care. It can be very difficult balancing the needs of your loved one and your own family life, so make sure that you look after yourself as well and get help and support as needed.

You do not need to take on the burden yourself. If your loved one’s needs are becoming too complicated, then you should speak to your local authority (see our Postcode Checker to find out the right place to contact). They can do an assessment and find out if the affected person is eligible for funding for care services. This could mean getting a paid carer to come in and help as required, for example. The You’re the Boss website has lots of information on finding the right care services for yourself or a loved one, including information on local authority funding and criteria, self funding and hiring your own home help.

Where can I get help and support?

There are lots of charities and support groups that you can contact for advice, information and support.

Alzheimer’s Society - http://www.alzheimers.org.uk/ - 0300 222 11 22

Dementia UK - http://www.dementiauk.org/ - 0845 257 9406 

There are also plenty of books that you can get to help you understand the condition.

*Statistics from Alzheimer’s Society

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