Dementia is a symptom of a disease, not the disease itself.
“It’s similar to cancer in the way that there are many types of dementia and different types will follow different routes,” says Debra Bilyeu-Hackney, coordinator of memory care at Catholic Care Center.
Two of the biggest types of dementia are vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease:
• Vascular dementia is a result of blocked or reduced blood flow to the brain which can kill brain cells. With vascular dementia, there can be some carryover memory, which is important for caregivers to remember. Things said today, such as “the car is outside,” could be remembered two days from now, creating problems if the car is not outside.
• Alzheimer’s disease is the largest type of dementia, with 50 percent of people ages 85 and older at risk for developing the disease. The risk grows as age increases. In fact, over age 65, the possibility of developing Alzheimer's disease or vascular dementia doubles every 5 years according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Proteins create plaque, which attaches to and kills parts of the brain. With Alzheimer’s, it is often the last learned things are the first to be forgotten.
Things to remember if a loved one has dementia
Bilyeu-Hackney uses the analogy of a sticky note to describe dementia.
“A sticky note that has been stuck on a surface for a while will start to lose its stickiness and maybe gather some lent on the adhesive part," she says. "If you write something on the sticky note and try to stick it back to a surface, it might stay or it might fall."
This could happen if you tell a family member that you will meet them for a birthday lunch only to pick them up and they are surprised that they are attending a birthday lunch. “You wrote new information on the old sticky note and it did not stick," she says.
A common thing to hear friends and family discuss is a change in vocabulary and attitude. Irritability might become a bigger issue.
"When the grandkids are being loud, you can rationalize that it is a short visit, so you can be patient," Bilyeu-Hackney says. "With dementia, the logic that it is a short visit is lost, so snapping becomes an issue.”
Another common issue is to hear those with dementia start to use words you’ve never heard them use before; particularly what has been deemed “bad words.”
Bilyeu-Hackney explains that one of the areas in the brain that gets attacked by the plaque is the area that controls language. Everyday words get lost, but words that were learned but never used are retained for a little longer. Additionally, these “bad words” tend to be descriptive.
As people with Alzheimer’s lose more memories, they lose names and then rely on descriptions of people or items. A brown dog could start out with the name Fido and end up being called Brownie.
It is important to remember that they are still loved ones, even if they cannot remember you, Bilyeu-Hackney says. They are scared and when taken out of their routine resort to fight or flight behaviors. They can pick up on emotions that you have when visiting them, so remain calm and assure them that you love them.