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Understanding Dementia: Common Symptoms and Tips to Help Families

Dementia is the umbrella term for an individual’s changes in memory, thinking or reasoning. There are many possible causes of dementia. It’s important to understand that it is different from normal changes that come with age.

The Impact of Dementia

Dementia may interfere with your loved one’s ability to:

  • Communicate
  • Think
  • Feel
  • Behave

Symptoms of dementia can become severe enough that they negatively impact daily life.

When someone you love is living with dementia, it’s helpful to keep in mind that the symptoms are taking over the person. The behaviors aren’t intentional. Keeping the person separate from the disease can help build empathy and, ultimately, a better relationship.

Diseases and Conditions Associated With Dementia

We often use dementia as an overarching term to describe a disease. This is similar to saying someone has cancer—though the person has a specific type of cancer. Many different diseases and conditions cause symptoms of dementia. Alzheimer’s is the most common disease and the one we hear about most. Others include Lewy bodies, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, and Parkinson’s disease.

Symptoms of Dementia

Here are a few common symptoms that are associated with dementia:

  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty performing specific tasks
  • Word recall
  • Disorientation to person, place, or time
  • Feeling a sense of paranoia
  • Poor judgment
  • Misplacing items
  • Mood swings
  • Changes in personality and behavior
  • Becoming passive or withdrawn

Tips for Communicating with a Person Living with Dementia

Communicating with your loved one can be a challenge with dementia. Remember, as we said above, the symptoms are taking over the person. Here are a few tips to help with communication:

  • Approach the person from at least 3-feet away
  • Offer a handshake calling the person by name
  • Keep it short and simple, use -3 words at a time
  • Speak slowly
  • Pay attention to your tone and pitch
  • Listen with all your senses
  • Simplify complexities into steps
  • Validate, redirect or distract when signs of agitation arise
  • Reminisce
  • Apply humor
  • Maintain eye contact

What is Sundowning?

At times a person with dementia may express some unwelcome fluctuations in behavior. A common behavioral change expressed by individuals with dementia is due to something referred to as sundowning.

Sundowning occurs as daylight changes into the evening. At this time, many people living with dementia express restlessness, agitation, irritability, or confusion. This may continue into the night and the person may have difficulty staying in bed. These behaviors may also be triggered by the individual’s environment and his/her inability to express their needs. For example, the person may be experiencing thirst, hunger, pain, or the need to use the restroom.

Here are a few approaches to help reduce sundowning:

  • Make sure the person isn’t overstimulated
  • Create a routine such as calming music in evenings or saying a prayer
  • Someone may be tired so reserve part of the day for relaxation or a nap
  • Reduce noise and clutter
  • Distract with a favorite object, activity or snack
  • Closeout light with curtains at dusk and turn on lights, so shadows aren’t as confusing
  • Assess the person for pain

Learn More

If you have questions about knowing when is the right time to find a memory care community for a loved one or if you’d like to learn about respite care at Clark, please fill out the form below or call 616-278-6520 or email us at

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