On Dementia: the stealth killer

While you can't change the outcome of dementia, you can change the journey of the sufferer

This disease will dim the person that once was, but s/he is still there and needs love, attention and no judgement.


Someone asked me to write about dementia.  Dementia is a deterioration in mental ability which affects memory, the thinking process, problem solving abilities, concentration, and perception.  However, while dementia affects overall mental health, it is not a mental illness, but a neurological disorder that cause changes in cognition.  Dementia occurs because some brain cells die or get damaged.  It is important to note that dementia is a progressive disease which starts with subtle changes in behaviour and this progression depends on the type of dementia and other physical, psychological, and social factors of people.

On average most people, at some point in their life will have their memory affected by stress, tiredness, certain illnesses, hangovers but if the forgetfulness is often and the person is at least 65 years old it is advisable to seek medical advice and especially if this has a substantial impact on daily life.

Here are some facts about dementia.

Currently, there is no cure.

Dementia is not a normal process of ageing, however 5% of people aged 70 – 80 develop it; and while it’s true older people are more likely to develop it, a significant number of people aged 40 – 65 develop some rare forms of dementia.  Please note these are UK statistics.

As well as no cure for dementia, there are no sure ways to prevent any type of dementia, however some evidence suggests a healthy lifestyle can reduce the risks e.g. a healthy balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, regular exercises, no smoking or excessive drinking of alcohol, maintaining healthy levels of blood pressure.

The current old age pensioners in Kenya are children of freedom fighters and many of them were teenagers just before Kenya became independent.  As the rest of the world’s young population enjoyed the swinging 60s, our parents and grandparents were reeling from a colossal colonial hangover and starting families.  Today, most of them are in their late 70s to early 90s and a few well into the 90s and beyond, and even more are suffering from dementia.  I feel we have to be particularly compassionate and kind towards this generation and treat them will dignity and respect – they lived through more than most people ever will.

Dementia affects the way a person thinks, speaks, feels, and even behave – it’s not all about memory loss though memory loss is a big part.  Some of the symptoms are memory loss, thinking speed, mental agility, judgement, trouble understanding things, poor vocabulary and trouble speaking.

Probably the worst effects of dementia are its effect on mood: sufferers appear depressed or excessively sad.  It is important for carers to be patient, supportive and sympathetic especially because sometimes sufferers lose the ability to understand their environment or situations.  Be careful not to judge them or tell them they are willingly lying or being ignorant.

Here are some suggestions on how to improve the life of a person suffering from dementia:

Encourage them to take physical exercises e.g. walking and swimming.

Encourage creative therapeutic pursuits e.g. music, writing, art and whatever you do as the carer, do not be too critical of their work.

Support them with memory exercises e.g. card games and word puzzles.  Avoid testing them or correcting them, show compassion so the person feels acknowledged.

Create a down-memory-lane book for special occasions e.g. weddings, holidays, and birthdays.

Spend time with them.

Try to help them maintain a routine and encourage continued independence.

Above all, do not isolate them even when they appear withdrawn and don’t make sense.  Look for meaning behind their words and/or actions and use simple clear language in short sentences.

Some symptoms of dementia can be alleviated with drugs to improve cognitive functioning, seek professional advice before giving drugs.

Marta, a 55-year-old woman from Zimbabwe, told me that one day she went to see her mother.  A ritual she’d done many years over the years.  As she always does, she knocked on the door before using her key.  But then, her 88-year-old mother came to the door, she looked dishevelled and out of sorts.  “Yes, can I help you?” she asked Marta.  She didn’t recognise her own daughter.  This didn’t happen overnight, there were changes in behaviour over time which Marta had attributed to stress and loneliness. For Marta, the most painful thing was knowing her mother could never remember the things she (Marta) would never forget.

Looking after someone with dementia can be challenging and extremely stressful but it can also be satisfying and rewarding if the carer also looks after their mental health by taking regular breaks from caring and doing activities that are rewarding.

As a carer ask for help when you need a break or are overwhelmed.  Sometimes cultural barriers prevent people from asking for help because asking for help feels like airing their dirty laundry.  It took Marta several weeks before seeking help for her mother because she didn’t want the whole community to know her mother was senile.  Sometimes people might surprise you with acts of kindness and compassion.  No matter what your community thinks about ageing and what comes with it, the first point of contact should always be professional.

As a carer, your health is very important, speak to a professional for advice and support, and because it can be overwhelming to look after a loved one, ensure you are eating healthily and getting enough sleep.  If you have relatives, be realistic and honest with them to share responsibilities – you don’t have to do everything yourself.  If you have no relatives, seek respite care and organisations who can help you.

And most important, find time for yourself to pursue your interests and relax.  Take up a new habit to aid relaxation e.g. meditation.  Stay connected with friends.

The main point for this post is to raise awareness, especially in the BAME communities.  Dementia is a disease that is killing our parents and grandparents and will one day kill us unless we raise awareness now and do something about it. Dementia is not a disease exclusive to the western world, it is global, random and relentless and while you can’t change the outcome of the disease you can change the journey of the sufferer.

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