Staying Positive in the Face of a Loved One’s Descent into Dementia

One of the saddest facts of life is that we all tend to degenerate physically and mentally as we age.  For most people, physical degeneration comes as something expected.  It gets harder to get up from a chair; we seem to resemble a camel rising in stages.  Everyone knows that many soft exercises like yoga, Pilates, or Feldenkrais can keep us physically limber for many more years.

Importantly, if someone is suffering from the normal effects of aging on their body, family members are usually quite sympathetic, offering to help and generally expressing tolerance for this common sign of an aging body.

The problem we face as family members of someone whose mind has begun to deteriorate is that we often get the feeling that they are doing or saying odd things on purpose.  This leads to anger, frustration, and very hard feelings.  In this short piece we’ll discuss the symptoms of dementia.  It’s not as simple as you might think.

Diseases of the Brain

Dementia is a blanket term which refers to mild to severe loss of mental function resulting in memory lapse and odd behavior traceable to impaired cognition.  Within the rubric of dementia are the various forms of dementia plus Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s diseases.

On the technical side, the latter three are considered diseases and dementia is considered a syndrome.  This term refers to a set of symptoms that are difficult to put together in a cohesive diagnosis.  Thus, Alzheimer’s can be detected, whilst Huntington’s and Parkinson’s show up with clear physical signs such as shaking in the hands or difficulty walking.  Persons struck with dementia may stay physically sound for many years even as they lose the ability to speak or recognize the people close to them.

A Sudden Shocking Statement

Let’s say that a family member loves to play online casino games.  You might be sitting with them as they put in their few minutes playing slots or blackjack when they make a completely uncharacteristic comment.  A simple curse is not enough to perk you up.  It has to be something that is so far out of character that you sit up with a start and ask them what they’re talking about.  Then they say that they don’t know and the incident ends.  It may not be repeated for months in this very early stage of dementia.

This is a mild example from an innocent at-home activity but what if the sudden outburst occurs when you and your loved one are out in public?  Then it’s easy to see how others might be offended by a massively strange remark that has no connection to reality or has a connection to a reality that no one talks about.

Dementia is extremely hard to detect by family members in its earliest stages.

The Next Episode

You think about the first incident and wonder what possessed your loved one to say that and then, months later, they do something that is also beyond comprehension.  It could be the kind of mistake people do make such as putting salt in a cake instead of sugar.  But if no one had previously put salt in the sugar jar, why would your spouse put salt in the cake batter?

You likely will chalk it up to a simple mistake but you still can’t figure out how it happened.

Odd Actions and Statements Increase

Then, the intervals between uncalled for comments or bizarre behaviors begin to decrease.  At first you might think that the family member is playing a sort of game with you.  Your anger rises.  You question everything they say.  For instance, they go shopping for shoes that are on sale for a very good price and come back having spent many times the amount you had expected him or her to spend on the shoes but they didn’t buy the shoes.  When you ask them what happened they either don’t answer or give you an unsatisfactory answer.  The issue never gets resolved and your anger builds further.

Your loved one will begin to embarrass you in public.  Again, you’ll make excuses to yourself or you’ll get angry at the loved one but, because the incidents are still too far apart for you to consider them a symptom of a medical condition, you don’t consider going to a doctor for a diagnosis.

Difficult to Diagnose

One big problem with going to a doctor in the early stages is that the patient might pass the cognitive test easily and the doctor will say that there’s nothing wrong with him or her.  This leads to reinforcement of your feeling that they are doing or saying these bizarre things on purpose, that they are playing with your head.  You try to figure out why they are doing that to you and no answer comes to mind.

By the time the intervals between episodes have shrunk to weekly, you know that something is seriously wrong.  Even if the patient passes the diagnostic test at this stage you tell the doctor that your loved one still has more lucid moments than not but that those lucid moments are becoming fewer and fewer that the bizarre behavior is becoming more difficult to excuse.

Patience Becomes Your Greatest Virtue

A patient can live at home in this state for many years.  It is extremely difficult to deal with degenerative cognition but even at this relatively early stage it is heartbreaking to the patient to be placed in a facility for Alzheimer’s patients.  Your loved one will see where they are and the lucid moments will become a nightmare and a horror to them.

The only device you have to maintain your own sanity is to get outside help for yourself.