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5 Common Signs of Dementia You Need to Know to Support Older Adults

It can be challenging to spot the signs and symptoms — here’s what you need to know

By Terry Fulmer, PhD, RN, FAAN and The John A. Hartford Foundation
A man sitting alone at home.
Credit: Getty

There's been exciting progress on what we know about dementia — which is the loss of memory and reasoning to such an extent that it interferes with a person's daily life. New technologies and therapies are on the horizon. Influential groups such as the Davos Alzheimer's Collaborative are forging partnerships between science, business, government and other organizations, and a new treatment was recently approved by the FDA to slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia.  

While these advances are positive, we know that science takes time and new treatments can be expensive. People who are concerned about dementia need support now. 

One in four family caregivers in the United States cares for someone with Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia, which can be costly and stressful. It can also be challenging to spot the signs and symptoms of dementia, since they may be misinterpreted as normal age-related memory loss. 

Spot the difference 

For anyone who cares for, lives with or regularly sees an older adult, here are some common scenarios you might observe and how to distinguish between normal behavior related to aging and more concerning changes related to dementia.

  1. Withdrawal from work or social activities. Most people occasionally feel uninterested in social obligations, but people with dementia may struggle to hold or follow a conversation. This can lead to withdrawal from social activities or hobbies that were once a favorite pastime. 
  1. Confusion with time or place. It’s normal to forget the date or location where something happened if you eventually recall it later. But what may be cause for concern is if an older adult forgets they’re at a friend’s home, for example, and doesn’t remember that you drove them there, despite your explanation. This could be a warning sign of dementia. 
  1. Trouble finding the words. We’ve all been tongue-tied trying to find the right word in a conversation — that’s typical. For people with dementia, however, they might find themselves stopping in the middle of a sentence because they can’t recall a familiar word or repeating the same story over again because they don’t know how to advance the conversation. 
  1. Problematic decision making. Forgetting to pay a bill or change the oil in the car is normal behavior, but consistently making poor decisions with money or neglecting everyday tasks like bathing or brushing one’s teeth could be a sign of dementia. 
  1. Major mood swings. People with dementia may become confused more easily, causing feelings of fear, anxiety, depression or anger to arise quickly, especially when in unfamiliar situations. This is different than mild irritation if a daily routine is disrupted. 

Give and get support 

If you notice any of these changes in an older adult and are concerned they may have dementia, there are several research-backed steps you should take and tools to ensure they get the care they need. 

First, make an appointment with their primary care doctor to get tested. Though the prospect of a dementia diagnosis can be frightening to consider, catching it early affords more time to plan. If their care providers are part of the Age-Friendly Health Systems initiative, dementia screenings are a routine part of the care they'd receive.  

Next, make sure you understand what matters to the older adult in terms of their care priorities. Having a conversation with them about their care plan as early as possible before dementia progresses helps ensure their wishes through the end of life are understood and implemented. In fact, most older adults with dementia appreciate discussing their care priorities and having a care partner who actively listens to their concerns before other decisions are made. Tools like this conversation guide can help.  

At the same time, tap into an available support system for yourself, too. Navigating a new diagnosis and caring for a person with dementia can be overwhelming for caregivers, so contact your local Area Agency on Aging, join a support group, and seek resources to help you manage any feelings of stress or social isolation.  

While we wait for more widespread therapies, drug discoveries, and detection strategies to combat this debilitating disease, we all should remember that there are support systems and organizations available to help now. By understanding the signs and symptoms of dementia, family caregivers can better help older adults plan and get the kind of care that matters to them when they need it most.  

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The John A. Hartford Foundation
By The John A. Hartford Foundation

The John A. Hartford Foundation is a private, nonpartisan, national philanthropy dedicated to improving the care of older adults. The leader in the field of aging and health, the Foundation has three priority areas: creating age-friendly health systems, supporting family caregivers, and improving serious illness and end-of-life care.

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