Everyone is unique, and dementia can affect people in different ways, so two people are unlikely to exhibit exactly the same early signs. However, if you are worried about any changes you notice in your loved one, there are some signs to look out for.
Very vague and subtle changes may not be immediately apparent, but some of the common early symptoms are outlined below. Sometimes these symptoms are assumed to be due to changes associated with growing older and therefore, it may not be immediately recognisable that there is something wrong.
If the changes occur gradually, they can go unnoticed for some time, mainly if you have been providing care at home for your loved one. Even if you realise there may be a problem, there’s always the chance your elderly relative might refuse to accept this themselves so it might be a difficult subject to broach.
Be patient, sensitive and calm while discussing this with your loved one. Be mindful of when you choose to bring up the conversation, it might not be the best time to mention something as you notice a possible symptom because your relative or friend could take offence or get embarrassed, which may result in them being more defensive than open to a discussion.
Memory loss, especially short-term memory, is, of course, the most common symptom of early dementia. If you express concerns about your elderly relative’s memory, their doctor may use a memory test such as the Six Item Cognitive Impairment Test to investigate whether they do have dementia.
This test involves a series of six questions that can be used to score memory problems. It includes questions about the current time and date, counting backwards from 20 and remembering a name and address.
Your loved one will be given a score out of 28 that will indicate whether they have memory problems. A score of 0 to 7 shows no evidence of memory problems, 8 to 9 means there are signs of memory problems and a score of over 10 suggests high evidence that the memory is impaired and requires further investigation.
Difficulty in finding the right word can happen to anyone, but if you notice that your loved one frequently forgets a simple word or often substitutes the right word for an unusual one making the conversation difficult to follow, this might be an early sign of dementia.
Problems with familiar tasks
People who have dementia sometimes find it difficult to perform familiar everyday tasks that we wouldn’t usually have to think much about. For example, they might not be able to put their clothes on in the correct order or remember the steps involved in preparing a simple meal.
Confusion and disorientation
If your loved one has companion care, you or another carer may become aware that they don’t know what day it is or are confusing day with night. If they go out, they may be unable to find their way home or get lost in a familiar place.
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Everyone is susceptible to mood changes from time to time, but if your loved one begins to have rapid mood swings for which there’s no apparent reason, it could indicate the early stages of dementia. In some cases, a person who is living with dementia will appear less emotional than they previously did.
It may be difficult to pinpoint exactly what has changed about your elderly relative who is developing dementia, but something to look out for is if they become particularly suspicious or irritable when it comes to people they know well. Perhaps you notice they sometimes think that a friend or family member is stealing from them, for example.
It’s possible that they become particularly agitated in situations they find stressful because of memory problems, so it’s important to keep this in mind.
Loss of initiative
Sometimes, an early sign of dementia is when the person becomes withdrawn and apathetic, not caring about things that used to be important to them. Although we can all feel fed up with things such as social obligations or activities sometimes, if your loved one seems to have lost interest in hobbies and seems to be sleeping more than usual, it is worth discussing your concerns with their doctor.
Problems with judgement
Poor or decreased judgement can sometimes cause someone who is developing dementia to speak or act uncharacteristically. For example, they might dress in many layers of clothes on a hot day or get up for their morning routine in the middle of the night.
We can all misplace things such as keys or spectacles from time to time. The difference with someone living with dementia is that they may put items in strange places, for example, placing a teapot in the fridge. Sometimes when they are unable to find the thing they have misplaced, and a person with dementia may think it’s been stolen.
Problems with concentration
Someone with dementia may have difficulty following a conversation, or they might be unable to cope with daily tasks that require concentration, such as sorting out the correct money to pay for purchases in a shop.
If you have any concerns that the changes you notice in your loved one may be early signs of dementia, it is always worth accompanying them to see their GP. The earlier the condition is diagnosed, the sooner they can get help. Knowing the cause of these symptoms can be somewhat of a relief because then it can be appropriately dealt with.
Although there is not a cure at present, medication can help with the symptoms of dementia, or perhaps you might want to start discussing, as a family, options like live-in care for the elderly.
It is entirely feasible to live well with dementia for many years, so together it’s worth doing some research into reminiscence therapy, keeping active, eating well, investing in home adaptations or perhaps joining a group or forum to speak with other people who may be going through the same experience.