What is dementia?

Everybody loses memory capacity as they age. Dementia goes beyond that. Brain cells die or suffer serious damage, resulting in loss of memory production and storage, loss of reasoning, loss of bodily function and, ultimately, death.

Strokes, head injuries and other conditions can cause dementia, but the main cause is Alzheimer's disease. Roughly one in 10 people older than 65 has Alzheimer's; about half of people older than 85 have it.

No cure for Alzheimer's exists, but medications can slow its progress. Early diagnosis is critical. General practice doctors sometimes make an initial diagnosis, but experts recommend testing by a neurologist, psychiatrist or diagnostic clinic.

A complete diagnosis should include blood work and other lab tests because vitamin deficiencies, thyroid disease and other curable conditions can create symptoms that mimic dementia.

Support groups deal with all types of dementia, not just Alzheimer's.

Dealing with dementia -- some tips

Stay pleasant. Someone with dementia tends to mirror your mood. Your tone and demeanor communicate more than your words.

Treat them with respect. Don't talk about them in their presence. Don't use "cute talk" or call them "sweetie" or "young man." If you don't know them, call them Mr., Mrs. or Miss.

Communicate clearly. Talk slowly, in normal tones. Use short, simple sentences: "It's time to eat." "Please sit in that chair."

Use friendly body language. Laugh, smile and touch them, unless they clearly don't want to be touched. Physical reassurance is usually a powerful tonic.

Be patient. Give them lots of time to respond.

Let them do for themselves. Folding laundry, planting flowers, etc., gives a sense of self-worth.

Approach from the front. Make eye contact before talking. Communicating from behind or from the next room can rattle them.

Avoid the word "remember." Wrong: "Remember Aunt Sue?" Right: "This is Aunt Sue, your best friend from Wisconsin."

Ask yes or no questions. Wrong: "What would you like to do today?" Right: "Would you like to go for a walk?"

Break instructions into pieces. Wrong: "Go get undressed." Right: "Come into the bedroom, please. (pause). Take off your shirt (pause). Take off your pants."

Don't explain yourself. Wrong: "I bought apples on sale. They went brown, so I made a pie." Right: "I made an apple pie. Do you want some?"

Don't try to orient them to reality. Wrong: "This is your home now. You haven't lived in Michigan for 15 years." Right: "Isn't Michigan beautiful in the fall? We can go there as soon as I buy airline tickets. Do you want some ice cream?"

Play soothing, familiar music. Big band, Sinatra, patriotic music, church music. If they like TV, tune to calm programs. Avoid violence, contention and loud programs. Soothing: Wheel of Fortune, Price Is Right, Lawrence Welk. Disturbing: Jerry Springer.

Accept body language as communication. If he clenches his fist, he may be in pain. If she is agitated, she may be hungry or cold. Try to diagnose the problem.

If they are angry at you, apologize. "I forgot to buy the tickets to Michigan. I'm so sorry. I'll work on it first thing tomorrow."

Use finger food. Put out small portions of limited choice. Eat more, smaller meals. Don't spoon feed unless absolutely necessary.

Hide pills. If they resist taking pills, hide them in applesauce, ice cream, anything sweet. Some pills can be ground up and mixed with food; others cannot. Consult a doctor or pharmacist.

Shower with them. If they resist bathing, make showering a loving moment.

Government help

State and federal programs help with home care, transportation, meals, respite and other services. To find out about these programs, call:

Pinellas: Neighborly Senior Services, (727) 540-0919

Hillsborough: West Central Florida Area Agency on Aging, (813) 740-3888

Pasco: Community Aging and Retirement Services, (727) 862-9291, option 1

Hernando: Elder Helpline, (352) 796-0485

Citrus: Senior Care Services, (352) 527-7640

For comparative information about nursing homes and inspection results, call Florida Medical Quality Assurance Inc. toll-free, 1-866-800-8767.

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