A few weeks ago, a TV channel did a show on a ‘dementia village’ – a facility aimed at allowing those affected to live with dignity. It would not be a first. A small town in Netherlands, Hogeweyk, showed the way when it enabled its residents to shop, sit in a café and wander the streets –just as they had done before. Now, the City of Greater Bendigo is looking to create something similar.
An innovative solution to the problem is worth thinking about. Currently, over half the population in our aged care homes have been diagnosed with dementia. By 2020, the total number of affected people is expected to be 400,000, reaching close to a million by 2050. Is it possible to create facilities that allow so many among us to live more meaningful lives?
What is dementia?
Dementia is a collection of syndromes, all related to failing brain function like loss of memory and inability to perform daily tasks. It is a physical disease wherein the brain cells degenerate. In the case of Alzheimer’s, an abnormal build-up of a protein called beta-amyloid causes plaque to form outside brain cells. Simultaneously, there is a build-up of protein ‘tau’ inside the brain cell. These proteins impact messaging between brain cells leading to classic dementia symptoms – impaired thought, communication, reasoning, memory, language and focus. A person must have at least two of these impairments affecting their routine activities before being diagnosed with dementia.
The most known form of dementia is Alzheimer’s and accounts for two-thirds of the cases, according to Better Health, Victoria. Dementia is very often, and mistakenly assumed to be a normal geriatric condition. It is more than that – the mental faculties deteriorate at a rate much faster than warranted by age. And while more numbers of older people are affected, it can strike people as young as 40.
Signs of dementia
These are some of the classic signs of dementia:
- Memory loss: this is often the first sign of dementia. When someone can recall what they wore to an event 5 years ago, but not what they ate for breakfast – that’s short-term memory loss. If it happens very frequently, it could signal an onset.
- Communication and language: conversations can get difficult as the person struggles to find the right words to communicate. The sentences may be disjointed and the reasoning unclear. Another classic symptom is the inability to follow a storyline or remember characters when reading a book or watching a show.
- Mood changes: the personality can change as judgement worsens. There are also early signs of depression and apathy.
- Unable to do routine tasks: that’s key for diagnoses. Some forms of fragility and impairment are normal ageing, but the onset of dementia impacts the ability to function. For instance, losing a sense of direction and forgetting familiar landmarks or forgetting to cook.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for dementia. It is a progressive disease which can be managed with the right support and care from family and health professionals.
How is dementia diagnosed?
A complete medical assessment is required for diagnoses. The GP may order some of these tests:
- Blood and urine tests
- Psychiatric evaluation
- Brain imaging to look for brain cell damage and the presence of amyloid proteins
- Medical history and a physical examination
- Memory and cognitive abilities testing
Coping with Dementia
Dementia can take up to 15 years to develop into a full-blown condition. Therefore, early detection is key to managing it well. According to Alzheimers.net, any measures taken to keep the brain active can slow down the onset of dementia:
- Learning a new language, skill or hobby is a great way to challenge the brain.
- Build a brain exercise routine. Solving crosswords or Sudoku at breakfast. Or a couple of games of chess after dinner.
- Commit to regular exercise. Some studies have found that running 15 miles a week can cut Alzheimer’s by 40%. However, all forms of exercise – walking, swimming, dancing are helpful.
- Eat a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods, such as strawberries, mangoes and apples, that contain the compound Fisetin.
- Take a meditation and yoga class.
- Eat more fish and Mediterranean food – foods high in Omega-3s are known to improve cognitive function.
With dementia being so widespread in Australia’s ageing population there are several resources for the affected, carers, partners and families. For instance, the government-funded Alzheimer’s Australia (www.fightdementia.org.au) runs the engage, enable and empower programme aimed at making the lives of affected seniors more fulfilling by reinforcing their connections with society. They also offer a helpline, advocacy support and social events to raise awareness.
If your parent or a loved one starts to show symptoms of dementia, encourage them to mention it to the GP in a routine check-up. If detected early, the GP could help put the person on a management plan, slowing down the rate of damage.