Our understanding of Dementia
Although dementia mainly affects older people, it is not a normal part of ageing. Dementia is a syndrome, usually of a chronic or progressive nature, caused by a variety of brain illnesses that affect memory, thinking, behaviour and ability to perform everyday activities.
The word dementia describes a set of symptoms that may include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language. These changes are often small to start with, but for someone with dementia they have become severe enough to affect daily life.
A person with dementia may also experience changes in their mood or behaviour, which can make caring for them challenging. As a person progresses they will require even more help and will gradually become totally dependent on others for specialist care. Loss of memory may become very pronounced, with the person unable to recognise familiar objects or surroundings or even those closest to them, although there may be sudden flashes of recognition.
The person may also become increasingly frail. They may start to shuffle or walk unsteadily, eventually becoming confined to bed or a wheelchair. The person may find it difficult to eating and swallowing and there will be a gradual loss of speech, though they may repeat a few words or cry out from time to time. The person may become restless, sometimes seeming to be searching for someone or something. They may become distressed or aggressive – especially if they feel threatened in some way. Angry outbursts may occur during close personal care, usually because the person does not understand what is happening.
Those caring for the person should try not to take this personally; the person is not being aggressive deliberately. Although the person may seem to have little understanding of speech, and may not recognise those around them, they may still respond to affection and to being talked to in a calm soothing voice. They may also enjoy scents, music, or stroking a pet. On average, people with Dementia live for eight to ten years after their symptoms begin. Life expectancy does, however, vary considerably depending on how old the person is. The length of time that someone with dementia can expect to live for also depends on whether they were diagnosed early on or later in the disease.
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