Many of us will be guilty of assuming that dementia is simply something all older people suffer from. Some of us will think that dementia means the end of a happy life and that nothing can be done to help those with it. Well, as you’ve probably guessed, these thoughts are simply not true.
Misconceptions about dementia are deep-rooted due to centuries of dementia patients being perceived as lost causes; as ‘forgotten people’. But with new research into the condition, a stronger understanding of the early signs of dementia, and improvements in our attitudes towards those who suffer from mental illnesses, they are slowly being purged.
Let’s separate facts from fiction to improve our understanding of dementia and help dispel the negative stigma which myths perpetuate.
Myth 1: “People with dementia lose their identity.”
Dementia does not consume a person’s identity. Those who live with dementia may face difficulties with expressing themselves, communicating with people, and with personality changes – which can make maintaining relationships hard. But it is other people that choose to identify them as nothing more than their dementia.
They are so much more than their illness. They have and can still continue to live their life meaningfully, and many of the memories of who they are will always remain in their long-term memory and with the people that love them.
Myth 2: “Alzheimer’s and Dementia are the same.”
In the same way that a slipped disc is a type of back injury, Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia. Dementia is an umbrella term for the various symptoms that occur when an individual’s brain is affected by certain diseases or brain damage, and there are many different ways this may happen.
Alzheimer’s is simply the most common; it causes the structure of the individual’s brain to change and leads to the death of brain cells, which means it can’t function as effectively as it once did.
Myth 3: “Dementia is part of the ageing process.”
The misconception here likely stems from the fact that, yes, as people get older they typically experience memory loss and their brain won’t be as efficient as when they were in their teens or twenties, for example. But that’s not to say this is true of all senior citizens; there are millions of people in their 80s and 90s who continue to live without much loss of their memory or cognitive abilities.
Dementia does mostly affect those over the age of 65, but it can and has been known to affect people even in their 40s and 50s. The brain is vulnerable to damage at any age.
Myth 4: “Dementia causes aggression.”
Think about when you’ve gone through a period of stress; whether it was due to unpaid bills, tight deadlines, or friction in a relationship. You no doubt felt frustrated and even aggressive.
Dementia is more than just having a rough week; it’s changes in the person’s brain and their lifestyle. They lose their independence. So how could they not feel frustrated and angry? Aggressive behaviour is not caused by dementia; the person is simply responding to a difficult time in the same way any other person would.
Now think about how you feel when people offer you support in stressful situations. You feel less frustrated and angry, right? The same goes for those with dementia: with the right support from someone who is understanding, they won’t need to cry for help through anger.
Myth 5: “There’s nothing that can be done to prevent dementia.”
Because there’s no one cause of dementia, there’s really no one way to prevent it either. But as is the case for many progressive illnesses, there are ways to lower the risk of it developing and to even slow its progression and symptoms’ impact.
Good diets, exercising, minimising bad habits like smoking and excessive drinking, and even stimulating activities to help keep the brain healthy are just a few examples.
Myth 6: “Dementia is caused by aluminium or shots.”
In short, there is no evidence at all to support these claims. Dementia is most likely the cause of various factors, including genes, environment, health, and lifestyle, or suffering from a series of strokes. Research is continuously being done, and while it’s understood that it’s to do with brain damage, definitive results have yet to be found.
Myth 7: “I should correct a person with dementia if they say something wrong.”
It may go against all your instincts to not do so, but correcting a person with dementia is very counterproductive. You are not trying to help them regain the same level of cognitive thinking as you or me; you are trying to help improve their quality of life.
This means you need to interact with them at their level, which will keep them encouraged to socialise as best they can and not feel confused, anxious, or bad for discovering time and time again they’re wrong about something.
So, let’s say for example that your father with dementia tells a story about how he visited his friend Tony earlier in the week (when in reality he didn’t). You wouldn’t tell him he hasn’t seen Tony in 20 years; you’d keep the conversation going by asking how it was and what they talked about.
Myth 8: “People with dementia are ‘gone’; visiting them and trying to have a conversation is pointless.”
One of the most useful things a person can do to improve a dementia patient’s quality of life is interact with them. At no point are they ever ‘too far gone’ to enjoy interaction with others and life in general.
Their ability to communicate fluently, hold onto short-term memories, and keep track of things may be affected, but the person behind the barriers posed by dementia is still very much there. Things like old familiar songs, books, and objects will resonate with them and revive their enthusiasm for life.
Liz Burton is a course author for High Speed Training, who provide a variety of online safeguarding and mental health courses.