If you’re in your 30’s or 40’s, you’re probably a member of the ‘sandwich generation’. You’ve got a dozen or more balls in the air at any one time, and you’re frantically juggling – balancing work and home with the demands of caring for children.
At the same time, you’re caring for ageing parents or family members. With so much on your plate, it’s understandable that you put your own needs last. That’s especially the case when it comes to your health and wellbeing. As one of the most prevalent conditions impacting Australia’s ageing population, dementia disproportionately affects more women than men. Chances are it’s going to touch your life either directly or indirectly. Here’s what you SHOULD know about dealing with dementia.
What is dementia?
You’ve probably heard the term ‘dementia’ bandied around. It’s an umbrella term covering several conditions including
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Dementia with Lewy bodies
- Frontotemporal dementia (including Pick’s disease)
- Posterior Cortical Atrophy, and
- Dementia caused by other diseases such as Huntington’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and motor neurone disease.
The common feature of these conditions is the progressive and irreversible loss of neurons (nerve cells) in the brain.
Dementia’s a fatal condition. The real tragedy is that dementia affects memory, behaviour, emotion and cognition. It strips away everything of consequence, leaving you a shell of your former self long before it reaches its final stages.
How common is it?
Dementia is one of the most prevalent conditions affecting our ageing population. It was named the second leading causes of death in Australian women for 2012, and third leading cause of death of all Australians, male and female, pipped only at the post by heart disease and cerebrovascular disease.
It’s also a condition that’s rapidly on the rise. It’s anticipated that 2030, more than 500,000 Australians will be living with dementia. That’s a whole world of heartache for those diagnosed with the condition, their carers and family members.
At what age are you at risk of dementia?
Whilst most commonly diagnosed in people older than 65, dementia is a condition that can affect even young, seemingly healthy adults in the prime of their lives. You’re more at risk of dementia if you’ve got a relevant family history of dementia or other hereditary diseases that can result in dementia.
Early warning signs of dementia
Because any one of a number of illnesses can fall under the umbrella of dementia, there are different pathways of progression. The way dementia affects someone will also depends on a person’s individual makeup.
One of the earliest signs of dementia is mild cognitive impairment (MCI): Forgetfulness, inability to follow and participate in conversation and over time, loss of the ability to live independently.
Because dementia’s a progressive disease, its symptoms might be explained away at first. That can mean the disease can be well-established before a firm diagnosis is made. That can result in a delay in accessing dementia-specific services and supports.
It’s usually close family and friends who pick up on the subtle changes in a person’s behaviour and personality that are later attributed to dementia. However, the process of actually getting a formal diagnosis can be a drawn-out affair.
Dementia’s notoriously difficult to diagnose. In fact, it’s usually reached after a process of elimination. That can involve a lengthy period of investigation including blood tests and brain scans.
Unfortunately, dementia is an incurable, fatal illness. However, depending on the type of dementia there are some drug treatments that can be prescribed, to slow the progression of the disease. Other therapies, such as physical therapy and cognitive behaviour therapy, are often used to improve quality of life. A person with dementia will need an increasing level of care as their condition progresses, often resulting in them having to be moved out of their own home into a high care unit of a nursing home.
Reducing your risk of dementia
The best thing you can do for your health to reduce your risk of dementia is to stay mentally active, eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and maintain your social networks. Prioritise your health and make sure you get regular medical checkups.
The impact of caring for a loved one with dementia
It’s not just the person diagnosed with dementia who feels the cruel sting of the illness. Family members who care for a partner or relative with dementia often have a front-row seat to the devastating effects of the disease. According to a recent report by Alzheimers Disease International, women are far more likely to be carers for those with dementia than men. You can read the report here https://www.alz.co.uk/women-and-dementia.
That’s something to really consider. The impact of caring for a person with dementia can weigh very heavily on a carer, especially if they’re a parent as well. Caregivers are statistically more likely to suffer from
- Exhaustion and sleep deprivation
- Grief, anger, depression and anxiety
- Loneliness and social isolation, and
- The financial and long-term career-stalling impacts of having to give up work to care for their loved one
If you’re caring for a person with dementia, you need to know you’re not alone and there is dementia-specific support available to help relieve you of some of the weight of such an important responsibility.
Dementia – Helpful links to information and support
The Australian Federal Government has recognised these impacts on carers. That’s resulted in the establishment of a National Dementia Helpline https://www.fightdementia.org.au/services/helpline The Helpline is staffed 9am-5pm weekdays, with a message bank service afterhours. You can call the helpline on 1800 100 500. Alternatively, you can also contact the helpline by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
There’s also a wonderful, free online publication produced by Alzheimer’s Disease International that provides information and strategies for carers. Their guide Help for Care Partners of Dementia can be found here http://www.alz.co.uk/ADI-publications#helpforcarepartners
Arming yourself with information, engaging in preventative health measures and taking advantage of the available supports is key to navigating a dementia diagnosis – whether it’s your own or a family member’s.