Christmas is often recognised as the most common time of the year for noticing signs of dementia in relatives. With many people seeing family members for the first time in a while, changes in a loved one can be more stark than if you were to see them every day.
Those who live with dementia can experience a range of symptoms in the early stages, with various types of dementia affecting people differently. Rather than being a disease itself, dementia is an umbrella term used to describe various symptoms that affect the brain, and is caused by different diseases, Alzheimer’s being the most common. In the initial stages, signs are more subtle and harder to spot, but these are some of the early indicators that I noticed from my own experience of my dad living with dementia:
This is one of the hardest symptoms to define, as people’s ability to remember events and conversations naturally vary. However, while anyone can be forgetful, it can become apparent when the loss of memory starts suddenly, or perhaps has grown worse over the past year or so. Looking back on having lived with my father, who was diagnosed with dementia when I was 12, one of the elements that now stands out is how he would often forget what had just happened, relying on us to tell him what to do next. While memory loss affects people differently, you may notice that your relative can recall a surprising range of facts or experiences from their earlier years, but will be forgetful about recent events.
This is a symptom that is often overlooked, as many mainly associate changes with memory, however movement can also change. My dad had always enjoyed walking, but he started consistently walking with purpose from one room of our house to another and up and down our local street all day long from a very early stage. It did become very draining for the whole family trying to look out for him and make sure he was safe.
This is a difficult element to observe in a relative who you don’t see often, but hoarding old items or buying a lot of the same thing can also suggest early signs of dementia. Often, they will forget they have already bought something, so will go out and get the exact same thing. My dad was constantly making copies of the house keys and buying exactly the same items from the shops more than three times a day.
One of the most challenging symptoms to come to terms with is the mood swings that can develop with early onset dementia. For those living with dementia, one of the biggest frustrations can come from feeling an emotion, but being unsure from where it originated. For most people, if they have had a bad journey in to work, for example, they could be in a bad mood for the rest of the day, but they would understand why. Those with dementia cannot remember the issue in the first place. As hard as it might be, it is important to try and avoid arguing and remind yourself that their anger stems from a frustration they cannot control.
Difficulty with new environments
Routine is a key element for anyone on their dementia journey, and when this is changed, they can become agitated and uncomfortable. Christmas can be a challenging time of year for those living with dementia, as they are often in an unfamiliar home, surrounded by people who aren’t part of their daily routine, and this can be overwhelming.
Loss of subtleties of language
Another early sign of dementia is a change in the way the person communicates. Linked to a change in memory, those who have dementia can struggle when communicating, often getting lost in conversations when it involves a topic they are unfamiliar with, or struggling to recall the right words when discussing an idea.
Changes to these relatives can be in general very slow interspersed with the occasional dramatic event. It’s human nature to get used to someone’s behaviour, however major changes in their actions can remind you of how far the journey has gone.
All the symptoms above will show themselves subtly at first, and can often be missed. If you think one of your family members is showing these signs of dementia, or others listed by the NHS, you should encourage them to see a GP as soon as possible.
John Ramsay is the CEO of Shift 8, the company bringing Tovertafel to the UK