Dementia is a Symptom, Not a Specific Disease

affordable home care, assisted home care, at home caregivers, care for older people, companion home care elder care in Minnesota, eldercare at home, elderly home assistanceImagine going to a doctor with a nagging cough.  The doctor asks you some questions, runs some blood tests, and then she sits you down and says, “I’m sorry to tell you, but you have a cough.”

That scenario happens frequently with general practitioners who inform family members that Mom or Aunt Mary has dementia.  All too often, the diagnosis ends there.

The problem with this is that, like a cough, dementia can come from many different causes.  Pneumonia, bronchitis, colds, and diphtheria can all make you cough, but the treatment for each of those illnesses is vastly different.  Imagine trying to sleep off diphtheria or receiving IV treatment for a cold.

Dementia is a symptom, not a specific disease.  Seniors can get dementia from lifelong excessive alcohol consumption, syphilis, strokes, or Huntington’s disease.  They may have Lewy-Body dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or Vascular dementia.  Each of these forms of dementia has traits unique to them, as well as different methods of treatment.  For example, seniors with Lewy-Body dementia tend to have more auditory and visual hallucinations.  They are more likely to regularly have good periods and bad periods, sometimes changing within an hour.  If you give someone with dementia a psychotic medication for sleeping, it may be helpful; however, if you give it to someone with Lewy-Boyd dementia, it’ll make their dementia symptoms worse.  Imagine caring for someone with Lewy-Body dementia without knowing its unique traits.  Armed with this information, the family caregiver can better anticipate needs and prepare appropriate interventions.

If your loved one has been diagnosed with dementia, the best thing to do is to take them to a geriatric neuropsychologist for a full cognitive evaluation.  When you receive a specific diagnosis, you will be better prepared to make an appropriate treatment plan, receive knowledge and education about the diagnosis, and seek out proper resources for support and care.

If you are taking care of elderly parents or other family members with dementia, be sure to read our three helpful dementia caregiving primers:

The Dementia Primer:  8 Things to Know About Alzheimer’s and Dementia

The Dementia Primer:  6 Tips for Working with People with Dementia

The Dementia Primer: 7 Pitfalls of Caregiving for People with Dementia

Leanne I. Esch, LSW

August 23, 2012




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