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placeholder November 6, 2017   •   VOL. 55, NO. 19   •   Oakland, CA
Senior Living & Resources

A discussion we must have about dementia

Our society needs to have a serious and honest conversation about dementia. In my career of almost 15 years caring for seniors, I have seen first-hand the havoc that dementia can play on an individual and the person's support system.

Guilt, grief, anger and frustration are commonplace when dementia hits. Most often I encounter confusion and a lack of awareness.

Dementia refers to a range of symptoms commonly found in people with brain diseases that result in damage to, or loss of, brain cells. It is a condition that results in a person's mind becoming progressively impaired and causes the loss of remembering, thinking and reasoning. Dementia itself is not a disease, but a syndrome that is defined by a specific set of symptoms. While there are a number of identified dementias, the most widely known is Alzheimer's.

Numbers are a major reason for the need to start the conversation about dementia. Numbers such as 47 million: the number of people, according to the World Health Organization, that suffered from dementia worldwide as of 2015. Or the number 3: as in one new case of dementia is diagnosed every three seconds. Or the number $818 billion: the annual cost, in dollars, to treat and care for those with dementia.

Perhaps it is the number 1, however, that is the most pressing need for our discussion about dementia. The number 1 represents the spouse, parent, grandparent, friend or neighbor that many of us will encounter at some point who will battle the effects of dementia. And dementia does not discriminate. It is an equal opportunity monster that does not care about sex, race, religion, socioeconomic status … or anything.

When dementia surfaces, awareness is a powerful mechanism to provide answers and enable people to cope. Encouraging a discussion about dementia is an attempt to create the awareness we all need to understand the challenges as we search for solutions.

With that goal in mind, let's discuss dementia:

What are the signs and symptoms of dementia?

Signs and symptoms can include memory loss, impaired judgment, faulty reasoning, loss of communication skills and disorientation to time and place. Neglect of personal care and safety are also common signs. In some cases, inappropriate behavior, hallucinations, agitation and paranoia are also noticeable.

Is dementia a normal part of aging?

Forgetfulness is not in and of itself dementia. In fact, the insidious nature of dementia can make it hard to spot at first. To be clear, dementia is NOT a normal part of aging. Undeniably, the likelihood of getting dementia rises with age, but just because we age does not mean it is a given that we will be faced with that challenge. In fact, sadly, for reasons still unknown we are seeing a growing number of cases of dementia in those under 65.

What causes dementia?

Scientists have worked feverishly to understand the causes, and they have uncovered much, but there is still a lot that we don't know. What we do know is that there are a variety of risk factors including genetics, environment and lifestyle. Dementia can be caused by conditions that attack brain cells, conditions that disrupt flow of oxygen or nutrients to the brain, drugs, alcohol, single or repeat trauma to the brain, and infection of the central nervous system. It is important to note here that a person is not prone to developing dementia just because a relative is diagnosed and confronted with it.

What do we do if we notice symptoms of dementia?

As with all things concerning health, it is always important to consult with a medical professional. Report your symptoms to your doctor as soon as possible. Keep a list of your concerns and ask loved ones to share their observations.

Is it possible to live an active life with dementia?

Yes, there are many people around the world facing dementia resolutely. They develop support systems and tactics to live well with the condition and slow its progression. In fact, programs such as the NEXUS program at Silverado, have demonstrated that people can build and maintain cognitive ability when regularly engaging in physical exercise, stress management, brain fitness exercises, engaging in purposeful social activities, participating in support groups and eating a brain- healthy diet.

Where do we turn to for help?

There are many resources available to help individuals and their families when faced with dementia. As mentioned previously, a person's physician should always be sought out as soon as dementia might be suspected. The physician can help direct patients to a myriad of resources in the community that can educate and assist.

There are also a number of organizations, such as the Alzheimer's Association, working tirelessly to provide resources and answers. It is especially important to seek out these organizations not only for the individual who is diagnosed, but also for the loved ones who will be called upon to care for them.

Too often the person providing support suffers their own decline because they are too busy caring for their family member or friend. When the care becomes too much, it might become necessary to find professional caregivers that can come into the home and assist, or to seek out options such as assisted living where caregivers and nurses can step in to help with the day-to-day care.

Dementia is a global issue and one that merits discussion. The more we talk about this issue, the more awareness we will generate. That increased awareness will improve understanding, diminish stigma, and improve the quality of life for those challenged with dementia as well as those who love and care for them.

(Ki Siadatan is senior community ambassador, Silverado Memory Care, silveradocare.com. For more information about Alzheimer's disease: www.alz.org.)

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