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I have been working with people who live with dementia for over three decades. A lot has changed since I was a new physical therapy grad. We used to say that older adults are ‘senile.’ We had very little understanding of the different types of dementia. We knew very little about the various stages of Alzheimer’s or how we could improve the person’s quality of life. And if a person needed to move from home, their only option was a nursing home. 
To the present day, we don’t have a cure or medication that stops the progression of dementia. In the past three decades, we have come a long way in understanding and taking care of people who live with dementia. And yet, people still have many misconceptions about Alzheimer’s, dementia, and memory loss.

 

1.    Alzheimer’s is worse than dementia


Dementia is an umbrella term for many conditions involving brain cell damage. These are also known as neurocognitive disorders, and they are all characterized by a loss of cerebral executive function, memory loss, and a decline in physical abilities. Alzheimer’s is one of the most common forms of dementia, and 60% of all people with dementia have Alzheimer’s.
It is essential to understand the differences between each type of dementia. Other than the common symptom of memory loss, they all differ in their causes, symptoms, and progression. As a result, each type will respond to disease-modifying agents, pharmacological intervention, and behavioral approaches differently. 

 

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2.    Memory loss is a normal part of aging


As you grow older, you experience physiological changes that can cause glitches in brain functions you’ve always taken for granted. For instance, It takes longer to learn and recall information, and multitasking is more challenging. Many may mistake this slowing of their mental processes for true memory loss. But in most cases, if you give yourself time, you’ll remember the necessary information. So, while it’s true that certain brain changes are inevitable when it comes to aging, major memory problems are not one of them.

 

3.    A healthy lifestyle and supplements can prevent (or even cure) dementia


While we don’t know what the cause of dementia is, we also know that certain factors play a role in developing dementia, such as the environment, genetics, and certain risk-increasing habits: consuming alcohol, eating a fat/ glucose-rich diet, and lack of physical activity. While a healthy lifestyle can help decrease the risk of dementia, none are a cure.
Once in a while, we hear of new research claiming that a supplement such as a coconut oil, Ginkgo Biloba, or Omega 3 can cure or prevent dementia. To date, there is no conclusive evidence for these claims. That’s not to say that they’ll have negative effects on your body; just as a healthy lifestyle may decrease your risk for dementia, some of those supplements can have a positive effect on your overall health. 

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4.    If I have the gene for Alzheimer’s, I will develop Alzheimer’s


New technology allows anyone to have their genome tested for the Alzheimer’s gene.
However, the presence of the gene is not a guarantee that a person will develop Alzheimer’s. On the other hand, not having the gene is not a guarantee that you will remain Alzheimer’s-free.
However, if you have the gene, there are lifestyle changes you can make to minimize the influence of other contributing risk factors such as diet, exercise, stress, and good sleep. 

 

5.    Correcting a person with dementia helps them maintain good memory 


We now know, through many studies, that orienting the person with dementia to our reality doesn’t help improve their memory. In fact, it can result in an adverse outcome, not to mention arguments and anger. Rather than correcting someone with dementia, try stepping into their reality. Cognitively, they may be in a different place and time in their life, and incorporating yourself into that reality won’t do any harm. 

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6.    If they can do the Sunday crossword, they don’t have dementia


Different types of dementia affect different parts of the brain. You may see people in mid-stage dementia who can solve crossword puzzles without any difficulty, but who will keep asking you the same question again and again. We see people in end-stage of dementia who have lost the ability to communicate, but when you play a familiar song, they can sing all of the words.
Long term memory functions longer than short-term memory, which can result in seemingly contradictory phenomena: a person may be able to remember every detail of events that happened fifty years ago, even while struggling to perform daily activities or failing to recognize family members.

 

7.    Dementia always causes aggressive behavior


We may indeed see a person with dementia exhibit aggressive behavior. But in most cases, there are clear causes to this anger: difficulty expressing needs such as hunger, pain, or the need to use the bathroom. External discomforts such as bright light, loud noise, or too many people moving around can create a feeling of overwhelming anxiety. Without the ability to explain what they feel, the person may become aggressive.
As caregivers, we must always try to figure out the cause for the aggressive behavior, since many times it’s completely preventable.

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8.    We don’t need to visit a person with dementia since they won’t remember us

 
When we visit a person with dementia, we create a positive feeling in that moment. We need to adjust our communication style to the person’s current ability, which changes constantly as the disease progresses. Positive emotions, after an enjoyable visit, stay with the person with dementia, even if he doesn’t remember who we are or when was the last time we visited.
The visits are also meaningful to us, as family members. We honor the person for who they are and not for the disease that took over their brain. Visiting a loved one who lives with dementia will make us feel calmer and happier as well.

 

9.    People with dementia are like children and can’t make decisions for themselves


In the early stages of dementia, a person is capable of managing their life, and it is important to honor those decisions. It is recommended to have a conversation with our loved ones to learn how they would like their life to look after they can no longer express their wishes.
It’s a good idea for a person with dementia to assign power of attorney to a person they trust. This person can make important decisions for the person with dementia based on their wishes, even when they’re incapable of expressing them.

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10.    Being around other people with dementia causes dementia to progress more rapidly 


Some people believe that placing their loved one with dementia in memory care will actually accelerate their dementia. It’s important to remember that dementia is not contagious. It doesn’t get worse, or better, based on who you spend the time with. As a family member, it is hard for us to recognize or admit that our loved one’s dementia is as advanced as others’ we see in their memory care facility. But memory care can positively affect a person with dementia: socialization, music and other guided activities in memory care can enhance their quality of life and provide many opportunities for productive engagement.

 

While we don't have a cure for dementia, many resources are available to anyone whose loved one lives with dementia. Educating yourself will help you better understand how to support your loved one. Start educating yourself now by reading HERE about dementia.


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