The suspicion that your elderly relative may be experiencing early symptoms of dementia can cause a great deal of stress and worry. Perhaps you have noticed that they are starting to forget things such as appointments, important dates and events, or maybe they are getting confused about their finances. They may be losing things more frequently than usual and struggling to remember familiar names.
GP referral to a memory clinic
Dementia can’t be cured, but it can be treated, particularly in its early stages, so a prompt diagnosis is important in order to limit the progression of the disease.
Your first port of call is almost certain to be your loved one’s GP, but unfortunately, the majority of doctors just don’t have the time and resources to enable them to make an accurate diagnosis, leading to delays in diagnosis and the chance that the disease will progress without the necessary treatment.
A firm diagnosis of dementia follows a wide selection of tests which the GP probably has neither the time nor the necessary skills to carry out, so you and your relative are likely to be referred to a memory clinic.
What happens at a memory clinic?
There are memory clinics throughout the UK, offering the services of several different specialists, including psychologists, who deal with mental health issues, geriatricians, who are trained in matters relating to ageing, and nurses with specialist dementia training.
Your loved one will be given a baseline assessment to establish their current memory problems. They will be offered a series of tests to check on their ability to remember facts and retain information, which will give an initial insight into their mental capabilities.
It’s important to stress to your loved one that there is no pressure to perform well in these tests - they are done merely to provide the medical professionals with an insight into your relative’s mental processes so that they can uncover any anomalies which could help with a diagnosis.
Your relative will also be asked to supply blood and urine samples, and they may have to undergo some type of scan. They may be offered a CAT scan, also known as computerised axial tomography, which takes x-ray images of the brain, or an MRI scan, which uses magnetic resonance imaging to show a detailed picture of the brain, which can identify damage caused by dementia.
An EEG uses electroencephalogram imaging to record electrical activity within the brain, whilst a SPECT scan relies on single photon emission computerised tomography to assess blood flow through the brain.
These scans can seem daunting, but they are completely painless. However, they allow medical professionals to easily identify any areas of brain shrinkage or anomalies that indicate a diagnosis of dementia.
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What happens next?
Depending on the results of the tests, your relative may be asked to come back in a few months for further testing, or they may receive a diagnosis.
Partners, family members or carers are welcome to attend appointments too, and where dementia has been identified, the health professionals may choose to discuss the diagnosis with someone other than the patient in the first instance, depending on their likely reaction to the news.
Because the memory clinic is staffed with professionals experienced in dementia treatment, they are on hand to offer advice and support and to answer any questions that you or your loved one might have about the diagnosis.
They will undertake regular reviews of any necessary medication and provide in-depth information on the specific condition which has been diagnosed, since dementia can take many different forms, including Alzheimer’s disease, Pick’s disease and Dementia with Lewy Bodies, for example.
The memory clinic will report their findings to your relative’s GP and will provide details of any diagnosis, collaborating over any prescribed treatment plans.
You will be given telephone and contact details to access further information and support services and will receive further appointments to track the progress of the disease so that any medications can be altered as necessary.
Why is a memory clinic better than a GP?
Unlike a GP, the memory clinic can focus specifically on memory issues, with trained and experienced staff who understand the concerns and worries of people with dementia, or those who suspect that they might have it. They can spend time talking over the issues and directing patients to the most appropriate sources of help, such as local community support services.
Trained nursing staff understand the issues surrounding living with dementia and can spend as much time as you need discussing options and provide helpful advice and reassurance.
If necessary, they can direct you to elderly care services in your local area, such as companion care for elderly people who are feeling vulnerable following their diagnosis.
You and your loved one will be offered information on long-term care solutions, giving you plenty of time to research and plan for the later stages of the disease. That might involve elderly care in a nursing home or care at home packages, where a caregiver experienced in dementia care moves into their home and provides 24/7 support.
- Before I Forget: Preserving Our Stories Using Digital Memory Curation - Dr Nick Barratt
- Preserving Memory, Not Just History: National Museums Liverpool Dementia Awareness Programme
- Dementia 2020 Citizen’s Panel: Making Britain the Best Place in the World for Dementia Care
- Dementia Across Borders: Alzheimer’s Disease International on the Global Approach to Dementia
- Music in Mind: Exploring the Relationship Between Music and Dementia with John McHugh