Normal Aging Versus Dementia

By: Julie Ehrlich, Aging Life Care ™  Specialist

What is normal aging?

 

Is my loved one aging normally or is this dementia?  Should I be concerned? Do I need to contact their doctor? 

 

When a person spends large amounts of time with a loved one, they don’t always notice changes, especially the subtle ones.  Most of the time, a change is noticed by an outside person when they come to visit. When they mention it, the caregiver or loved one, just “plays it off” as it is not a big deal.

 

What is normal aging?  Let’s discuss the difference between normal and what may be dementia. 

 

Normal aging. A person will exhibit the following symptoms as they age normally.

  1. Slower thinking
  2. Slower ability to do things
  3. May hesitate more in thinking and speaking
  4. More likely to “look before you leap”
  5. Will know a person, but not their name
  6. May pause when word finding

 

Dementia. Some symptoms that may present itself, that are not normal aging.

  1. Unable to think the “same” as previously.
  2. Unable to “do” as they did before
  3. Unable to initiate tasks or “think” things through. 
  4. Will get “stuck” in a moment of time
  5. Unable to successfully recall a person’s identity
  6. Words won’t come even with visual, verbal or touch cues
  7. Will be confused about past and present
  8. Personality and behaviors will be different
  9. Unable to recognize objects and understand their role

 

There is quite a great difference between normal aging and dementia.   Please note that not all people with dementia will exhibit all or the same symptoms. 

 

Communication:

A person with dementia-like symptoms does not only having memory changes but wordfinding changes.  They are losing their ability to comprehend language and may use words in a way that do not make sense to the “normal brain”.  One term phrased by Teepa Snow, MS, OTR/L, is “word salad”. Their brain seems to get frustrated by not being able to respond and needs to get words out and so, therefore “pulls out” words which seem to make sense to them.  The brain is compensating for the loss of language and comprehension on the left side of their brain which occurs due to dementia. 

 

A person may not recognize and be able to name an object.  For example; a set of keys sets on the table. A person with dementia may be able to pick the keys up and nod their head but be unable to tell you what it is or what it is for.  

 

Daily Routine:

A person with dementia is unable to initiate tasks.  They do not know how to start a task or follow through with more than a few steps.  An example would be if your loved one is having difficulties with keeping up with their checkbook.  Many people do not allow their family members to look at this until there is a problem. Another example is for them to follow a recipe that they have known for years.  A person with dementia does not even know where to begin with these tasks. They just prefer not to cook. They tend to get “stuck” in tasks but will tend to hide this from their family stating that everything is fine and they prefer not to do it. They sometimes write notes to themselves to do a task.  Families have found things written down several times over and notes in different areas of the house. 

 

Behaviors/Mood:

Mood and behavior changes are a key point to note for a loved one.  They may begin showing reactive or accusatory behaviors towards you when they have never acted like this before.  Any mood or behavior changes that you have not seen before need to be taken seriously and noted.

 

Recognition:

The inability to recognize faces or know a person’s identity is important to note.  A normal brain can forget a person’s name but at a later time will remember where they know them from and/or their name.  A dementia person will have no recollection of knowing the person.  

 

Next Steps:

What do I do if my loved one is showing signs of what could be dementia?  

 

Never assume someone has dementia or “label” them as having it.  However, the first step if there is a concern is to contact their doctor. It is important for the physician to rule out anything medical by doing lab tests and a physical if they have not already been done recently.  

 

 What a LifeLinks geriatric care manager can do

We can work with you and your loved one by sitting down to discuss the concerns and working with the doctor. This is a very personal, delicate situation.  Your loved one may or may not realize what is going on. They may be angry, embarrassed, sad and many other emotions upon bringing up any of this. 

Our care managers act sometimes as a mediator, an adopted daughter, an advocate and many other things dependent upon the situation to care for our clients.  Our care managers walk hand in hand with families to advocate and support families and their loved ones, navigate the doctor’s visits and educate about what is next to come. We look at each client holistically; physically, emotionally, cognitively, socially and spiritually.  We have Registered Nurse Care Managers who are also able to come to the home to assist with medication management and ongoing care assessment as well. 

 

Please know that you are not alone and that there is help for both you and your loved one.  

Please contact our LifeLinks office if you have any questions. 

 

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