Recognizing the Early Signs of Dementia

People change with age. We may get a little more forgetful. At times, we may not think quite as clearly as we once did. We may even become more ornery at times. It happens. But, if someone you love is showing significant changes in their usual behaviors, traits, and/or abilities…pay attention. While some changes may be a “normal” part of getting older, others could signal that something else is going on.

Dementia is a loss of mental skills that happens gradually and may progress to the point where the condition has a very destructive impact on a person’s life – affecting daily skills, relationships, and health. The earliest signs are often subtle, but identifying them quickly is important for many reasons. In some instances, dementia symptoms may be caused by a reaction to medications or something else that can be remedied. Symptoms also may be caused by underlying medical conditions that are treatable. In the case of advancing dementia, knowing what you are dealing with can help you make important decisions and plans while your loved one is still capable.

People with early dementia may seem to experience a significant shift in their personality. Those who have always been friendly, considerate, and polite may become sullen, cranky, insulting, and inappropriate. They are probably unaware of the changes themselves and have no concept of how their actions or words might be offensive, hurtful, or embarrassing.

Watching someone you love slowly morph into someone else is painful. Attempting to talk with the person about the possibility of dementia can be extremely difficult. It can be hard to even begin when you are trying to put your worries into words that won’t seem demeaning or be hurtful to the person.

The Alzheimer’s Society suggests having an open, honest, and very direct conversation in a familiar, non-threatening setting. Other recommendations include explaining why you’re worried and using examples to illustrate your concern. Assure your loved one you are bringing up the subject because you care deeply about the person. Suggest a visit to the doctor for testing, discussion, and treatment options. Let your loved one know you will be there as a support system and advocate.

The following are a few of the early signs of dementia. You may already be familiar with some, and some may be new to you.

Some early signs to be aware of…

  • Staring. Instead of the normal eye movement observed in most people, you may find your loved one spends long periods of time staring in one direction.

  • Mobility and balance problems. Your loved one may have difficulty walking and keeping his or her balance. He or she may slip or fall frequently.

  • Loss of memory and train of thought. Your loved one may forget familiar words, use words in the wrong context, or lose focus and direction in the middle of a conversation. He or she may become disoriented and confused easily. It’s also common for people in the early stages of dementia to repeat the same information over without realizing it. They may find it difficult to retain new information. They may easily lose track of where they put everyday items.

  • Compulsive, repetitive behavior. Your loved may begin to repeat certain actions over and over, such as turning lights on and off.  He or she may start hoarding items or hiding possessions.

  • Deteriorating sense of direction. Becoming easily lost is a common symptom of dementia. People forget how to get home even on a familiar route. They may not recognize familiar landmarks. They may not be able to follow a simple map or step-by-step directions.

  • Decline in abilities to perform usual tasks or problem solve. With early dementia, someone who has always been decisive may no longer be able to make even minor decisions without some difficulty. Very often, people have difficulty managing money or make mistakes balancing a bank account. A regular card player may no longer be able to partake in a favorite game.

  • Loss of interest. Lethargy is a common symptom of early dementia. Your loved one may start losing interest in favorite activities. He or she may avoid social interaction and may seem emotionally vacant around people.

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