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Dementia is a reality for many Canadians. In fact, roughly one third of the population has Alzheimer’s by the time they’re 85 years old and one in five people in Canada have experience as caregivers.

So how do we navigate this complicated world?

Gerontological social worker, Amy D’Aprix, breaks down how to navigate dementia and the best ways to help those with it.

Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s: What’s the difference?

Dementia is not a specific disease. It’s an overall term that describes a group of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other-thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of Dementia cases. You can learn more on the Alzheimer’s website.

The importance of a diagnosis

Sometimes there are treatable conditions, and sometimes vitamin deficiencies and depression can look like dementia. Most of the symptoms of dementia and depression are the same.

For example, an older person can have a vitamin B deficiency, thyroid issues, and sleep disorders. The symptoms that come with these, like hearing loss and confusion, can look a lot like dementia. A good diagnosis is crucial.

There’s no specific test. It has to be a combination of a physical exam, cognitive exam and medical history. If it’s not comprehensive, you’re not getting a good diagnosis.

Old age vs. Dementia

Normal ageing can be related to memory loss, but it’s important to keep track of progressive memory loss. If someone says, “I can’t remember where I left my keys”, that’s not necessarily dementia. But if they don’t know what car keys are for, that’s a qualitative difference.

How to deal with dementia

Go into their world and come up with strategies instead of trying to correct them. Try these:

Redirect them

If they’re stuck in a loop (i.e. “I want to go home, I want to go home”), you can try to re-direct. Say, “Let’s get a cup of tea”, for example. You can try changing your location or activity.

Therapeutic fibbing

The idea of entering their world and not correcting them can be seen as therapeutic fibbing. For example, if they think their mother is coming to visit but she’s been dead for years and years, simply say, “I think she’ll be here tomorrow. Your mother is such a lovely person, isn’t she?”, or something that offers comfort (not “She died years ago.”) The goal isn’t to create an elaborate lie, but to simply offer a touch of comfort rather than more stress.

Talk about the diagnosis

Tell the person once. You don’t want to rob them off their humanity, and they have a right to know. You just don’t need to tell them every single day.

Get help

People need to look for help much quicker than they typically do, and getting help doesn’t always have to mean paid help. Remember that you’re not alone. Create a care network around you. Turn to the government and your community for assistance, when possible.

This website is a great resource. You should also check out Confidence to Care: A Resource for Family Caregivers Providing Alzheimer’s Disease of Other Dementias Care at Home.