Ask the Expert: Early-onset dementia and Alzheimer's

Everyone forgets a name or a date from time to time. But how do you know when it's something serious?

Marina Tompkins, a certified social worker and director of Keswick Multi-Care Center's adult day program, talks about how to tell the difference between normal behavior for an aging population and what could perhaps be the early onset of dementia or Alzheimer's. She says there are actions that people and their families can take:

When someone is forgetful, how do you know when to seek help?

As we get older, our memory changes. With aging, the ability to learn new things is more challenging; retaining new information becomes more difficult and is normal.

The type of forgetfulness which is NOT normal is when an individual finds it increasingly difficult to do everyday tasks such as using a telephone, a calculator or a computer. If you drive the same route to work every day for years but suddenly become disoriented and confused and you can't read the road signs, this is also not normal. These are all signals it is time to see a doctor.

What can someone with a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's expect?

Early onset of Alzheimer's can change one's life instantly. Most people who experience early onset are working and planning for retirement. But early onset will change these plans, causing an earlier retirement and a new definition of a post-retirement purpose. This can cause fear and anxiety in some individuals, but also an offer an opportunity to reconnect with old hobbies and friends, and have time for new ones.

What can a spouse or children expect?

Alzheimer's disease is an illness that impacts the whole family unit, from spouses to children, even extended family and friends. Each person with Alzheimer's is different, and each family deals with the disease differently.

Management of finances and the day-to-day functions will be one of the first challenges families face. Spouses may need to redefine their roles. Children may also need to play a greater role and have a more regular presence in a parent's care. But families can also discover their resilience and strength during this time. I often hear families tell me, "I never knew I could laugh so much." Humor and laughing is the best remedy to handling the challenges early onset present.

Are there exercises or programs that are useful?

Exercise and socialization is key. Anything that gets the blood flowing is important. This may include walking with a friend or taking a seated yoga class. Movement sends much-needed nutrients and oxygen to the healthy brain cells. It is important that individuals take care of their brain, especially with an Alzheimer's diagnosis.

People with Alzheimer's disease tend to isolate themselves. This may be due to lack of transportation, embarrassment about their memory loss, confusion in new places. Isolation puts people at risk of depression, which increases Alzheimer's-related symptoms such as memory loss, confusion and anxiety. It is important for individuals and families to encourage their loved ones to join a support group, eat lunch with friends or make new friends and learn a new hobby. All of these can be achieved with the support of an adult day program.

Where can family members go for support or assistance?

It is OK to ask for help. Alzheimer's disease introduces significant lifestyle changes for a family. It is important that families seek help from their community, their extended family members, friends, doctors, social workers, religious groups, the Alzheimer's Association and a local adult day program. Individuals and families are resilient, but no one can do it alone.



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