Dementia is a neurodegenerative disease that is progressive and fatal. It is the second-leading cause of death in Australians aged 75-84 – after coronary heart disease. In those aged 85 and over, it is the leading cause of death.

This article, written by Age Up Health, answers the questions: what is dementia? and how to support a loved one who has dementia?

What is dementia?

Dementia is a general term for loss of memory, language, problem-solving and other thinking abilities.

It is not a single disease; it’s an overall term - like heart disease - that covers a wide range of specific medical conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease (the most common form of dementia). Disorders grouped under the umbrella term ‘dementia’ are caused by abnormal brain changes. Many people don't realise this and think it's only about loss of cognition.

Our first-person dementia story here shares an insight into a grandmother's journey.

Dementia symptoms

As dementia progresses, the structure and chemistry of the brain is impacted leading to the damage and gradual death of brain cells. Damage to various parts of the brain will have different effects. For example, in one area it might affect short-term memory, while in another it might affect a person’s ability to organise things.

Dementia can dramatically change a person’s personality or behaviour, including:

  • Reduced or confused communication
  • Anxious or agitated states
  • Hallucinations and false ideas
  • Loss of inhibition
  • Aggression

A person with dementia's abilities may change from day to day, or even within the same day. As the disease progresses, many abilities will be lost. However, the person living with dementia keeps their sense of touch and hearing, and their ability to respond to emotion – so it’s imperative we continue to engage them in all that is important to them and allows opportunities for connection, happiness, and joy.

It’s important to note that forgetfulness and memory problems do not automatically point to dementia. These are normal parts of ageing and can also occur due to other factors, such as fatigue.

Dementia is the second-leading cause of death in Australians aged 75-84.
Dementia is the second-leading cause of death in Australians aged 75-84.

How to minimise the risks of dementia

Risk factors for developing dementia are different for everybody but may be influenced by your age, genetics, or family history – these are non-modifiable factors (age is the #1 risk factor for dementia – with the risk of developing the disease increasing as you age beyond 65 years and older).

Lifestyle choices are also known to impact your heart health, body health and brain health, but because these factors are connected to how you choose to live your life they are known as modifiable risk factors. It’s now proven that making healthier lifestyle choices can reduce your risk, or delay the onset of symptoms, with current thinking suggesting you can reduce your risk by up to 40%- 50% - depending on where you live in the world.

Your brain is your most valuable asset. Having a healthy brain is vital at any age, but it’s now known to be critically important for middle-age - when changes start to occur in the brain: changes that have been linked to increased risk of dementia. We now know that the best choices to support your brain health are the same as those you would make to keep your heart healthy (both physically and emotionally). Many people are unaware of the connection between heart health and brain health, but recent research shows that cardiovascular conditions that can affect your heart and blood vessels are linked to a higher risk of developing dementia later in life.

These conditions include:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • High cholesterol
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Inactivity
  • Heart disease
  • Smoking

No two stories are the same

No two cases of dementia will present in the same way. The priority, then, regardless of the type of dementia diagnosed, should be to provide care in a manner that focuses on the best quality of life for each person. Once you have found what works for your loved one, stay with it. Their happiness, welfare and quality of life are  imperative to maintaining a peaceful and safe environment for them, as well as for yourself.

With treatment and early diagnosis, you can slow the progression of the disease and maintain mental function.

How to support a loved one with dementia

Building a support team for a loved one with dementia starts with finding a good GP and neurologist.

When caring for a loved one with dementia, take a step back and look at the whole picture. This is a new world they are living in and so may need more support and understanding from you. It is important to remain vigilant, notice the little things that are changing in them, and have the support team ready. They will help you to determine the best cause of action.

You need to make the right decision for your family as well as for your loved one. The most important point here is to source as much information as you can to help you make the right decision for all parties involved.  Remember, to take your time, and seek counsel and advice to help you and your family.

Learning your loved one’s routines and habits are also imperative, as little things, such as something out of place, being hungry, thirsty, or cold, can cause changes in mood and behaviour. Remember to ask how they are feeling, as people with dementia often have trouble expressing themselves and can’t always tell you what they are feeling.

Most importantly, always remember that people living with dementia do not lose their desire to be active and involved in the world around them, so seek out the best people and options in your area to help you facilitate that for them.

Look after yourself when caring for somebody with dementia

Taking care of your own health is also vital. Maintaining regular exercise, plenty of rest and sleep, as well as a healthy diet, will help fortify you for the task at hand.

There will be occasions where you will need to share how you are feeling with people who care about your welfare. Where possible, talk things over with family members and friends as well as other people who are in a comparable situation. These will become valuable and precious times for you to know you are supported.

There are a number of health services that could also provide additional support and provide invaluable help when necessary:

  • Palliative Care – a team of health professionals who’ll work with you to devise a plan for the trajectory of dementia illness
  • Respite Care – affords a necessary break when most needed
  • Professional counselling services – can offer a fresh perspective to what you are dealing with.

Considering your own emotional health and well-being is essential. It’s important to take the time to maintain your own social relationships and lifestyle to remain connected to the things that bring you joy and happiness. Doing so will not only relieve some of your own stress but also bring pleasure to the person you care for - knowing you are taking some time out for yourself.

Making plans to 'go your own way'

It’s important to get end-of-life plans in place early while your loved one is still able to have a say in what they want for their healthcare, medical treatment and financial wishes later on. Bare Law can help your loved one make a Will and other estate planning documents like making an advance care plan and appointing a power of attorney or medical decision maker. These documents cannot be made once a person has lost capacity.

To find out more, visit the Bare Law website here, or chat with the estate planning team on 1800 959 371.

‘Going your own way’ could also mean choosing a home care option that is right for your loved one.

About Age Up Health

Age Up Health is the first fully integrated aged care service that offers holistic and person-centred in-home support to keep older Australians living at home for longer. They combine acute clinical care, pain management, mobility, nutrition, personal and domestic support and social and community integration services into a single, integrated care plan delivered in the comfort of home. Currently, to receive all of these essential services a person must move into residential care.