Elderly hands over puzzle pieces

Dementia 101

Identifying early signs of dementia, and taking the next steps

Did your mom forget — again — where she put her keys? Is your dad having trouble finding the right words? Maybe your grandma just got lost in her own neighbourhood. If you’re worried that your elderly relative may be showing signs of dementia, you’re not alone: more than half a million Canadians live with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. Read on to learn more about dementia, how to recognize it, and what you can do if you suspect there’s a problem.

What is dementia?

Senior man looking confused while wife comforts him

Dementia isn’t a specific disease. Rather, it’s a general term to describe progressive brain disorders that impair a person’s ability to think, use language, solve problems, remember things, or make decisions.

Dementia isn’t a part of normal aging. As we age, it’s normal to experience small memory changes, like misplacing the car keys, struggling to find a word and then remembering it later, or forgetting names. This is known as age-associated memory impairment. But dementia is different: the changes caused by dementia get worse over time, and interfere with a person’s ability to function independently in everyday life.

Types of dementia

Dementia is an umbrella term that is used to describe several diseases. The most common medical conditions that fall under this umbrella include:

  • Alzheimer’s disease, which accounts for 60–80% of cases. Alzheimer’s disease is thought to be caused by the abnormal buildup of proteins in and around neurons, or brain cells. As a result, the neurons are damaged, lose connections to each other, and eventually die. 
  • Vascular dementia, which accounts for about 5–10% of dementia cases and is linked to strokes or other issues with blood flow to the brain.
  • Lewy body dementia, which also accounts for about 5–10% of dementia cases and includes not only more typical symptoms like memory loss, but also movement or balance problems, like trembling or stiffness, as well as sleeping problems or visual hallucinations.
  • Frontotemporal dementia, which most often leads to changes in personality and behaviour. Sometimes these changes can lead to embarrassing or inappropriate behaviour. Frontotemporal dementia also accounts for about 5–10% of cases.
  • People who experience more than one type of dementia are said to have mixed dementia. This is more likely to occur in people aged 80 and older.

Other diseases, such as Parkinson’s or Huntington’s disease, can contribute to dementia. Some causes are reversible or treatable, such as when dementia is a side effect of medication, fever or infection, dehydration, depression, excessive alcohol consumption, vitamin deficiency, or thyroid imbalances.

Signs and symptoms of dementia

Man entering white maze

People with dementia tend to have problems with memory, paying attention, communicating, problem-solving, and understanding visual images or spatial relationships. Here are some early signs and symptoms that could suggest a loved one has dementia:

  • Memory loss, including forgetting information learned recently, asking the same questions over and over, forgetting names of close family members or friends, or forgetting important dates or events. As dementia progresses, people may start to forget events in the more distant past.
  • Confusion or disorientation. People experiencing dementia may lose track of times, dates, or seasons. They may forget where they are or how they got there.
  • Difficulty with planning, solving problems, or working with numbers. People living with dementia might have more trouble keeping track of or paying monthly bills, following recipes, or following directions.
  • Challenges with once-familiar tasks, like forgetting how to drive to a familiar location or remember the rules to a much-loved game.
  • Difficulty with language. People may forget familiar words, struggle to find the right word, or use unusual words to refer to familiar objects. They may have trouble following or joining in conversations, and may repeat themselves.
  • Vision problems and trouble understanding spatial relationships. This can lead to getting lost while driving, difficulties with balance or trouble reading, or judging distance.
  • Misplacing items, like keys, a purse or wallet, or phone, and having trouble retracing their steps to find these items, or putting them in unusual places (like the microwave). They may accuse the people of stealing misplaced items.
  • Personality and mood changes, like increased or new depression, anxiety, paranoia, agitation. People living with dementia may experience hallucinations, or they may behave inappropriately — for example, they may pay less attention to grooming, be more susceptible to online scams, or say something insulting or inappropriate in a public setting.
  • Disrupted sleep and changes in sleep patterns, such as sleeping during the day and feeling restless at night, or waking frequently at night.

Stages of dementia

Although dementia progresses differently and everyone, it tends to get worse over time, and progress from mild through moderate to severe. As the disease progresses, people will need more help with the tasks of everyday living. People with severe dementia may 

  • need full-time care to help with the tasks of everyday living
  • lose their ability to communicate
  • lose physical capabilities like walking, sitting, the ability to eat or to control bowel or bladder function
  • be more susceptible to infections like pneumonia 

What to do if you think your loved one might have dementia

Don’t wait: See a doctor for proper diagnosis

If you or your loved one is experiencing signs or symptoms of dementia, it’s important to see a doctor as soon as possible. That’s because: 

  • It’s important to know whether there are treatable, underlying causes that may be contributing to symptoms.
  • In some cases, an early diagnosis can help with treatment. 
  • Early diagnosis may increase the chances of participating in clinical drug trials that can help advance research into dementia.
  • Where the dementia itself cannot be treated, an early diagnosis can help you, your loved one, and extended family and friends make plans for managing the condition and your loved one’s care.

How diagnosis works

A visit with your family doctor or nurse practitioner will probably be your first step. They may refer you to a neurologist, a doctor who specializes in disorders of the brain and nervous systems. Other specialists may include geriatric psychiatrists, neuropsychologists, and geriatricians.

Your healthcare providers will most likely:

  • assess whether there may be an underlying tradition that may be causing the symptoms, and conduct a physical exam
  • take or review your loved ones medical and family history to find out whether dementia or other conditions run in the family
  • conduct cognitive and neurological tests that assess things like memory, language skills, problem-solving abilities, and physical functioning like balance and reflexes
  • conduct or order other tests like brain scans, genetic tests, psychiatric evaluations, or blood tests.

My loved one has dementia. What do we do next?

Receiving a diagnosis of dementia can be emotional, and overwhelming, both for the person with dementia and their loved ones and family members. It can help to acknowledge the emotions that come up, and to seek ongoing help and support to deal with them.

Because dementia is a progressive disease, you and your family members will continue to need information and support as the dementia gets worse. Now is the time to start researching and making plans. Here are some tips to get started:

  • Read and understand about your loved one’s dementia. Get information from reputable sources like the Alzheimer Society of Canada.
  • Gather together your loved one’s Circle of Care: the family members, friends, and professionals who will help take care of your parents. You can use the CareEasy app to connect everyone virtually, in order to share information and tasks, and to support each other.
  • Make plans for your loved one’s financial and legal well-being. Ensure that documents like your loved one’s last will and testament, durable powers of attorney for healthcare and property, advance care directives, and more are up-to-date and easily accessed. It’s important to do this while your loved one still has the cognitive ability to make legal decisions.
  • Research the programs and services available to your family, your Circle of Care, and your loved one now and as the disease progresses. What services are available in the community? What services might be available at a long-term care or assisted-living facility?
  • Think about and plan for your own future as a caregiver for somebody with dementia. Understand the stresses and rewards associated with caregiving, the government benefits you and your loved one may be entitled to, and healthy ways to cope.

Prepare your Circle for a diagnosis

If you’re dealing with a diagnosis of dementia, CareEasy can help. The CareEasy app brings family caregivers together on one, fully transparent, platform to coordinate care, now, and as the disease progresses. With CareEasy, you and your Circle of Care can help your loved one live as well as possible with dementia.

Download the CareEasy app for FREE