What it's like to have dementia

image.jpg

Grandma is aged 74 and a widow, five years now, and she lives with a domestic help in a Lagos suburb, although one or another of her three children drop by once every other week or so, usually with the grandkids (her first child is married). As everyone knows, grannies make the best parents, so it was especially fun for the kids. Or at least, it used to be.

 

Because in the last six months, it's been more scary than fun. You see, Grandma has been kind of forgetful. And this isn't your regular forgetting either. She's been forgetting even the names of her own children as well as the grandkids'.

It didn't start this way, to be honest. In the beginning, it was funny. That was maybe three years ago. She'd go into a room and forget what she went to pick up. Or she'd miscalculate the change she expected from the help when the girl went to buy drinks for her occasional visitors. The kids had a great time teasing her about it, and she'd laugh with them and say, “Your Granma's getting old o.” But then she began complaining about the help stealing her things, although it would often turn out that she had herself forgotten where she put them. And she became very irritable, which was worrisome because she'd always been the most pleasant woman. (It was Grandpa who had been the strict and stern one.)

It got worse. She started getting lost, and they'd had to demand that she be allowed nowhere herself. She didn't like this in the least, of course—Grandma was very independent—but something happened that settled the matter. Once a man from two streets away brought her, telling the help she had been knocking on their gate and asking for her husband. Apparently the man, who didn't know her, had asked around until someone who did had directed him to her house. The poor help had been too embarrassed for Grandma to tell the man that the husband in question was five years dead.

And that was another thing: she started referring to her husband more and more, and as though he still lived. Her children got really worried then, although they figured she must be missing him so terribly it was affecting her mind. But when she started forgetting the names of her children and grandchildren, it got too much to ignore. Maybe it was time she visited her doctor…

Do you know anyone like this? If you do, you might want to arrange for them to see a doctor, because there's a good chance they have dementia.

What is dementia?

I'm glad you asked. For starters, check out this description in the 10th revision of International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Problems (ICD-10):

Dementia is a syndrome due to disease of the brain, usually of a chronic or progressive nature, in which there is disturbance of multiple higher cortical functions, including memory, thinking, orientation, comprehension, calculation, learning capacity, language, and judgement. Consciousness is not clouded. Impairments of cognitive function are commonly accompanied, and occasionally preceded, by deterioration in emotional control, social behaviour, or motivation. This syndrome occurs in Alzheimer's disease, in cerebrovascular disease, and in other conditions primarily or secondarily affecting the brain.

I know, there's a bit of medical jargon in there, but the point is, dementia is a disease of the brain. Two things important to note there about dementia:

It's usually chronic.

    I've talked about this before. Chronic means it's a long-term condition and not that it's a serious condition. That is, once it starts, it's usually not going away anytime soon. Like asthma, hypertension, diabetes, HIV. You get the picture.

It's usually progressive.

    That means its tendency is to keep getting worse. That's partly because it is mostly a degenerative disease (which you can think of as a disease of “wear and tear”).

So what happens in dementia?

Well, first of all, remember my post about what mental disorders are? They are mental (affecting how a person thinks, feels, or behaves) and they are disorders (affecting their ability to live their lives as normally as they should be able). So you see that in dementia too.

The most obvious thing, usually, is problems with memory and thinking. (Want to tweet that? Click here.) Like in the scenario with Grandma* above, relatives of a person with dementia often find that they have major problems remembering stuff, or figuring stuff out. It can be as "little" as forgetting where they kept things as huge (especially as it gets worse) as forgetting the names of their spouses and kids, or even getting lost around their own house. They may also have problems with things like calculating change or performing what used to be simple tasks or just engaging in conversation.

All of this, of course, affects their ability to ability to live normally, and that's usually most obvious in problems with activities of daily living: bathing, dressing, eating, toilet activities, their personal hygiene as a whole. It doesn't start off all at once, of course, but over time, everything just gets more and more difficult…

In my next posts, I'll give you some facts about dementia (like, did you know it's as common as 1 in 20 people over the age of 60 years?), tell you about the commonest type (Alzheimer's) and also a bit about some of the other types. Plus I'll talk in a later post about some great ways you can support someone who has been diagnosed with dementia.

In the meantime, do you know anyone who might have dementia, and maybe you're only just realising it? Or have you had any personal experience with someone who did and you'd like to share? Let's hear your mind in the comments! Also, please share this post: you don't know who this might help, right?

*Grandma is not a real person, of course. But dementia? That's as real as it gets.