What to look for in normal aging vs. dementia and when to seek intervention.
Maybe you’ve walked into a room and forgotten what you came looking for. Or maybe you’ve lost your keys or forgotten to turn off the coffee pot before leaving the house. We all have lapses in our memories at times, but as you or a loved one age, you might start wondering whether your forgetfulness is normal or something more.
Forgetfulness is one of many signs of cognitive diseases like dementia. But unlike normal aging, dementia goes beyond forgetting things like a recipe or phone number and results in serious memory loss.
Even though people with dementia can still live fulfilling lives, it’s important for their loved ones to make the right accommodations for ease and safety.
Let’s take a closer look at normal aging vs. dementia and what you can do to protect your loved one.
Comparing Dementia and Normal Aging
Aging is a normal part of life and can start as early as age 30. Things like bone loss, loss of muscle strength, and changes in skin appearance and vision are typical symptoms that most people will experience as they get older.
And while aging is not a disease, dementia is.
Dementia is the general term for severe cognitive decline that interferes with daily life. It affects more than 50 million people worldwide, but its commonality shouldn’t be mistaken for a normal part of aging.
Normal aging may result in minor forgetfulness, but someone with dementia will forget newly learned information. They struggle to put their thoughts into language and may substitute unusual words to make up for it. Their speech and writing are hard to understand. People with dementia find it difficult to complete everyday tasks like tying a shoe or paying bills, while normal aging has little or no impact on completing tasks. Someone with dementia may not know what day of the week it is and may even forget the current year.
Combined, these symptoms make it hard for people with dementia to take care of themselves. They struggle to prepare meals, forget to pay bills, or fail to keep doctor’s appointments. If they’re on medication and can’t remember when they’ve taken it, they could end up consuming too much or not enough.
Without proper protection and assistance, it can be dangerous for someone with dementia to live by themselves. They could easily cause a fire by forgetting to turn off the oven or stove. They may wander away from home and not know how to return. Or if an emergency occurs, they may be unable to call for help.
If your loved one has or may have dementia, it’s essential to learn how to protect them before they jeopardize their health and safety.
Early Signs of Dementia
Dementia doesn’t occur overnight; it manifests over time and worsens gradually. Only a doctor can diagnose dementia, but there are a few early warning signs you can look for:
One of the most common signs of dementia is memory loss that goes beyond forgetfulness. Someone with dementia may forget their grandson’s name or their own phone number.
Difficulty with Familiar Tasks
Making a cup of coffee like they’ve done every morning for years has now become a difficult procedure. They get lost going to the grocery store or forget how to start a load of laundry.
We all misplace our keys or cell phones, but someone with dementia will frequently forget where they put something. In addition, they may start to accuse someone of stealing or moving something instead of taking the blame themselves.
Withdrawal From Social Settings
People with dementia begin to withdraw from social settings. They may tune out conversations or stop engaging in something they love if it involves other people.
Irritability, fearfulness, and depression are common moods for someone with dementia. Their personality and behavior change, and they may have uncontrollable outbursts or mood swings.
If you notice a loved one experiencing these symptoms, let their doctor know so you can get an accurate diagnosis. There is no cure for dementia, but a physician can recommend ways to help your loved one manage the symptoms and make daily life easier and safer.
Caring for a Loved One with Dementia
Taking care of someone with dementia can be stressful and at times can feel like a full-time job. But remember that it’s also hard on your loved one. They’re struggling to maintain their independence and sense of self and don’t want to feel like a burden on their family.
Living independently with dementia isn’t impossible, but it will take some thoughtfulness and precautions to help your loved one live comfortably while giving you peace of mind.
Living with dementia is an adjustment for everyone, and your loved one may not fully grasp what’s happening to their mind. It’s important to help them adjust, especially if you’re making changes to their daily life. Staying positive and patient can make all the difference in how well they receive your message and how much of their cooperation you earn in the process.
Create a Safer Living Environment
If your loved one will remain in their home, make sure you eliminate safety hazards and make it easier for them to carry on with business as usual. Look for trip or fall hazards or other safety issues. Place essential things on low shelves so your loved one doesn’t have to climb or reach.
Test the smoke alarms and install a carbon monoxide detector. Make the tub or shower slip-proof and install grab bars where necessary. Make sure that steps are well lit and handrails are secure. You can also ask their doctor what else you can do to help your loved one live independently.
Hire an In-Home Caregiver
Caregiving can be a tireless job, so don’t hesitate to ask for support from family, friends, and professional caregivers.
In-home caregivers can give your loved one the help and protection they need to live independently. They can assist with every aspect of daily living, from medication reminders through meal prep to light housework. For many families, this takes a large part of the responsibility from your shoulders while ensuring your loved one is well cared for.