A Caregiver’s Guide to Understanding Dementia

Jory Cross by Jory Cross | Licensed since 2012
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This article was updated on: 09/09/2018

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Are you a caregiver for a loved one with dementia? It may help to gain an understanding of this condition and learn how dementia is defined.

What is dementia?

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) defines dementia as “the loss of cognitive functioning – thinking, remembering, and reasoning.” It sometimes includes behavior issues, such that a person may no longer be able to perform daily functions as before.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has a more specific definition; this institute says dementia is not a single disease, but a general term for symptoms of brain disorders that affect normal daily functioning.

These symptoms could include loss of memory, personality changes, and loss of cognitive function. People who have these symptoms may not always have dementia; typically, doctors diagnose a dementia-related illness only if the patient has at least two symptoms and other causes have been ruled out. For example, some other diseases might cause symptoms that appear a lot like dementia, but when the disease gets treated, the symptoms disappear.

There are various types of dementia, the NIA reports. Alzheimer’s is the most common, followed by vascular dementia. Other types include frontotemporal disorder and Lewy body dementia (a complex disorder with symptoms that vary widely from one person to another). All forms of dementia affect the brain, however, and a person’s ability to do normal activities.

When people talk about dementia, they often equate it with Alzheimer’s disease, which gets worse over time. But not all dementias are Alzheimer’s, and not all dementias are progressive. For example, chronic alcoholism, brain tumors, interruptions to blood flow to the brain (such as strokes), and side effects from medications are just examples of other causes of dementia, according to the National Institute on Aging. Some forms of the disorder are reversible.

So if your loved one seems to be showing signs of dementia (such as alarming forgetfulness or trouble with simple, routine tasks), you might want to take him to the doctor’s office to have him evaluated. Even if the diagnosis is Alzheimer’s or another incurable type of dementia, the doctor may be able to tell you what to expect and give you some guidance as a caregiver.

What are the stages of Alzheimer’s disease?

The National Institute on Aging reports that there are three stages to Alzheimer’s disease (the most common form of dementia). Here are the stages and some common symptoms generally associated with each:

Mild – getting lost, losing things, trouble handling ordinary tasks such as paying bills, and changes in behavior

Moderate –erratic behavior, trouble recognizing loved ones, confusion, and increased memory loss

Severe – difficulty swallowing, loss of bowel and bladder control, skin infections; the patient may be unable to talk

Is there a cure or treatment for dementia?

As noted above, depending on the cause of the dementia symptoms, in some cases it may be treatable or even cured. However, there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s, which is the most common form of dementia, the National Institute on Aging reminds us. Some prescription medications may be able to slow the progress of the disease, so talk to your loved one’s doctor about this.

However, the patient’s doctor may be able to prescribe a medication that may help manage symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, according to the National Institute on Aging. You might want to discuss possible treatments with the doctor.

How can I cope with my loved one’s dementia?

First, it may help to understand the disease. Besides the basic overview in this article, your loved one’s doctor may be able to explain it to you further.

It can be very difficult if a loved one yells at you or argues with you due to disease-related personality changes. Try to remember not to take it personally, advises Caregiver.org; it may well be the disease that is causing this behavior.

For more coping tips, see Alzheimer’s Disease and Caregiving.

Statistics about dementia patients

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease (the most common form of dementia) increases with age. These statistics help illustrate how Alzheimer’s is a growing health issue in the United States that impacts many people and their families:

  • Symptoms commonly appear after age 60.
  • The number of people with the disease doubles every 5 years beyond age 65.
  • A CDC study reports that about 5 million Americans were living with Alzheimer’s disease as of 2013.
  • The CDC estimates that about 14 million Americans will develop Alzheimer’s by the year 2050.

Family members often provide care for loved ones who suffer from the symptoms of dementia. Since the number of people with brain disorders is expected to increase as the population ages, many families might have to accept responsibility as caregivers.

Medicare benefits for dementia sufferers

Original Medicare includes Part A (hospital insurance) and Part B (medical insurance). Part B may cover doctor visits, preventive care, and certain screenings; coinsurance and the Part B deductible may apply.

It’s important to know that Original Medicare (Part A and Part B) generally doesn’t cover prescription drugs that your loved one would take at home. If your loved one’s doctor prescribes medications, you might want to learn about coverage under Medicare Part D (prescription drug coverage).

Would you like help looking at Medicare Prescription Drug Plans or other Medicare plan options that may help pay for the costs of treating a person with dementia? If so, I can help you:

  • To ask for an informative email or personal phone call, use one of the buttons below.
  • Use the “Compare Plans Now” button to research Medicare plan options in your town or city.

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