As a very little girl, one of my most favourite people in the world was my Grandma Hilda or, as I called her, Mana. I remember how she kept a bowl of Scotch mints on her coffee table for whenever I visited, and she always let me have as many as I liked. When she came over to our house, she would sit with me outside and watch the clouds or tell me stories. On one spectacular occasion she and I practiced rolling down the slope in our backyard. My dad scolded me when he saw us because he thought his mother was far too old to do things like that, but she just smiled and winked at me behind his back.
I was only five when Mana moved from her own apartment into an assisted living residence. She was slowing down physically, but still sharp as a tack. We would visit every Sunday, and every week she asked me to sing to her and her friends in the common room. She loved to knit, and she kept me supplied with a constant stream of slippers, all with fluffy pom poms on them.
I was probably about six when my father first started to notice something wasn’t right. My grandma “lost” a day, an entire 24 hours that she couldn’t account for. Then she forgot to turn the tap off in her room, flooding the unit below hers. My father remembers playing dominoes with her and having to repeatedly explain the rules, despite it being a game she had played her entire life.
Of course he was concerned, so he took her to see a doctor who matter-of-factly told him, “She has dementia.” Unfortunately, that’s all he told us. Back in the 80s, people didn’t talk much about dementia or Alzheimer’s, and my dad didn’t know what he should do or how he could help her.
As Grandma Hilda became more and more forgetful and physically frail, she was moved to the extended care unit at Mount Saint Joseph’s Hospital. We still visited her, but she often didn’t remember me or my brother. She still loved having us visit her and still loved plying us with Scotch mints, but she didn’t know we were her grandchildren. Then she started forgetting her own son, my dad. On one occasion she became extremely angry at the nurses and started violently swearing at them, something that would have been so foreign to her gentle personality before.
I was young, and I didn’t understand why my grandma didn’t recognize me anymore. It’s been over thirty years, but I still remember how awful it felt to lose her even though she was still physically sitting there in the chair in front of us.
Three in four people know someone with dementia, so chances are you may have had a similar experience. That’s why it’s important to learn the basics of dementia, how to recognize symptoms, and how to better communicate with those who have it. The more you know, the more prepared you’ll be to help loved ones with dementia live better.
Signs and Symptoms of Dementia
Before she passed away in her sleep at eighty-eight, my grandma displayed many common symptoms of dementia like forgetting things she’d done, difficulty performing familiar tasks, and not recognizing her family. But dementia is more than just memory loss. Dementia Friends Canada also lists these less well-known signs to be aware of:
- Standing still or looking around for long periods of time
- Dressing inappropriately for the weather
- Difficulty finding a word
- Creating new words in place of forgotten ones
- Repeating a word or phrase
- Being unable to organize words into sentences
- Repeating the same question within a short period of time
- Cursing or using offensive language
- Reverting to a first language
- Talking less than usual, or remaining silent
Tips for Communicating
When you’re talking with someone with dementia, speak slowly and keep your sentences short and simple. Allow lots of time for them to answer, and listen carefully. Always approach from the front so as not to startle them, and make sure not to stand too close. You may need to identify yourself and why you’re there. Be encouraging and non-confrontational, and try to remain encouraging and focused on the person’s strengths instead of their challenges.
How You Can Help
One way you can help is by becoming a Dementia Friend. You’ll learn the signs and symptoms of dementia and simple things you can do to help improve the lives of people living with dementia. I did it in memory of my Grandma.
Let those living with dementia know that you’re a friend by signing up on the Dementia Friends Wall.
Do you know someone living with dementia? How do you help, or how would you like to help?
Disclosure: This post has been generously sponsored by Dementia Friends Canada, the opinions and language are my own.