The holidays have come and gone, but this is often the time when children begin to question any health concerns, especially cognitive issues, they may have noticed in a parent while the family was together.
Signs of memory loss, such as forgetting how to do a familiar daily task, confusion and even mood changes, can be alarming to children. If your spouse is a veteran, they may even question whether this is related to dad’s military history.
While you likely noticed these changes and have seen the progression in your husband’s dementia over time, realize that these changes may feel dramatic and extremely worrisome for loved ones who are not there every day.
Begin by having an open conversation about your husband’s cognitive condition. The longer you wait to air out worries and emotions, the higher the risk of miscommunication or a confrontation within the family. Your children need to understand their dad’s dementia and what lies ahead so they can accept the diagnosis, changes and any dementia care that Dad may need.
Start with the basics. Do they understand what dementia is? Do they have false assumptions based on myths they’ve heard or what they’ve seen in movies?
What is Dementia?
Dementia itself is not a disease. Dementia is a brain condition that causes problems with thinking and memory. There are many forms and stages of dementia. While medications and therapies may slow decline and help with symptoms, there is no cure.
The five most common types of dementia are:
- Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, accounts for 60%-80% of dementia cases. It’s a disease that progresses over time, destroying memory and eventually the functions needed for daily living.
- Vascular dementia occurs due to a series of small strokes or a single stroke in a large blood vessel.
- Dementia with Lewy Bodies Lewy is when microscopic deposits of a protein form in the brain.
- Parkinson’s disease dementia occurs in people with the nervous system disorder Parkinson's disease. On average, the symptoms of dementia develop about 10 years after a person first gets Parkinson's.
- Mixed dementia is a combination of two types of dementia. The most common combination is Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia.
How Dementia Happens
Let your children know memory loss is not a natural part of aging. While we all will likely experience occasional memory problems as we age, dementia is caused by damage to the brain cells and will require some type of treatment and assisted care.
The treatment depends on the dementia and each person’s progression. Medications, non-drug therapies and dementia care can improve symptoms and help Dad remain as independent as possible.
Your children may have heard some of the myths over the years, such as drinking out of aluminum cans can lead to Alzheimer’s or aspartame increases the risks of developing dementia. To date, none of these have been proven true. Try to steer the children away from getting wrapped up in “why” and possible causes. Instead, focus on what Dad needs now and into the future.
How Dementia Progresses
Keep the lines of communication open with your children. By understanding the various stages and how dad is doing, there will be less chance for a misunderstanding or uncomfortable situation. It is never a good idea to avoid the topic or “pretend” it’s not happening.
For Alzheimer’s Disease and related dementias, there are typically three general stages: mild, moderate and severe. Since dementia affects people differently, each person will progress through the stages differently.
Dementia Symptoms by Stage
Mild (early stage) — can function independently with only close family, friends and neighbors noticing symptoms.
- Problems coming up with the right word or name
- Losing or misplacing valuable items
- Forgetting material just read
- Increasing trouble with planning and organizing
- Greater difficulty performing tasks in group or work settings
Moderate (middle stage) — often the longest stage and typically when symptoms become noticeable to others.
- Forgetting events or his own personal history
- Unable to recall his own phone number or address
- Confusion on what day it is
- Increased wandering or becoming lost
- Not choosing proper clothing for the season or occasion
- Moody and withdrawn, especially in social settings or mentally challenging situations
- Personality and behavioral changes such as being compulsive or overly suspicious
Severe (late stage) — individuals often need extensive help with daily activities.
- Require 24-hour supervision and assistance with daily activities and personal care
- Lose awareness of recent experiences and current surroundings
- Severe changes in physical abilities, such as the ability to walk and communicate
Dealing with Dementia Behavior Changes
Most people with dementia undergo behavioral changes at some point. The changes can range from being impulsive to inappropriate or childlike. Anticipating behavioral changes and understanding the causes can help your children deal with them more effectively.
Share these tips before they make their next visit with Dad.
- When aggression appears, don’t engage in an argument or debate. Aggression in people with dementia is usually triggered by a physical discomfort, unfamiliar situation or poor communication. Identify the cause of the aggression and shift away from that.
- If Dad becomes confused about where he is at or who someone is, provide a simple explanation, photo or other remember. Don’t dwell on the confusion. Go for a walk, have a snack together or find another activity he enjoys.
- If Dad begins making absurd accusations, don’t argue with him. This will likely lead to more anger and defensiveness. The deterioration of brain cells caused by dementia can lead to behaviors of poor judgment, errors in thinking and delusions.
- Let’s look for specialized activities you can do with Dad. Activities that stimulate the mind and senses can reduce anxieties and confusion. Offer to check out the schedule of activities at an assisted living center to see what community activities, such as music or art, are open to the public. Ask about activities specifically for those in need of memory care.
As your children begin to understand Dad’s dementia, discuss how they can help support you in caregiving, what the future of Dad’s dementia care looks like and how they themselves can get any needed support and resources.
Dementia is life-changing for those who are diagnosed and for their loved ones. By establishing a support system within your family and connecting with professional organizations and support groups, you can help your entire family understand the challenges and ensure Dad has the support and care he needs.
When dementia progresses to the point where your loved one requires continual supervision by trained professionals, Maine Veterans’ Homes is here for you. Our dementia unit is staffed with professionals who possess the knowledge and resources to provide your loved one with caring support. At Maine Veterans’ Homes, we take great pride in establishing friendly, trusting relationships with our residents’ families. We will help you make a difficult situation a little more manageable.
Contact Maine Veterans’ Homes online today or give us a call at 1-800-278-9494 to find out more.
Maine Veterans’ Homes is an independent nonprofit organization serving Maine’s veterans and families.