Although dementia mainly affects older people, it is not a normal part of ageing. Worldwide, around 50 million people have dementia, and there are nearly 10 million new cases every year. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and may contribute to 60 to 70 per cent of cases. Photo: Contributed

Column: Difficulty of dealing with dementia

Dementia journey a mix of humour and sadness.

There is another purpose built around the month of January besides paying your shopping bills from Christmas.

This month is also Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, a national initiative meant to educate and change false public perceptions about what it means to live with Alzheimer’s or the myriad of other forms of dementia.

Negative attitudes and misconceptions held by friends, family and professionals can discourage people from getting a diagnosis, seeking treatment and support, or disclosing their illness.

A recent poll by Insights West revealed a majority of British Columbians know someone living with dementia but that 60 per cent of survey respondents indicated they are not confident how to deal with someone living with it.

While I often hear the dementia experience described as a “journey,” it is one where the starting point is not always readily evident, the symptoms often blinded by the love you have for a family member and there is no arrival—it just continues until it stops. It’s progressive, degenerative and eventually terminal.

I am now engaged in my second experience dealing with dementia. My dad suffered from it, the initial symptoms aggravated by a fall down the stairs which led to all his mental and physical functions becoming incapacitated—everything from walking to swallowing food.

Now my mom, after suffering a fall that led to surgery for a broken elbow, has been diagnosed with dementia. Her cogitative capabilities are severely limited beyond those brief moments of clarity and she has lost her ability to walk.

It is difficult to describe what it feels like to sit in the hospital bedside my mom, the rock of our family for as long as I and my sister can remember, and see her now at age 93 talking about things that make no sense. In the same sentence, she can acknowledge who you are and drift off into a story beyond your wildest imagination.

There is both humour and sadness in living that reality.

We can laugh at moments where my mom thinks she is James Bond on the trail of an evil criminal, that her son is actually another patient in her hospital room, that her daughter-in-law works in her bank but understands why she can’t disclose to anyone their family connection for security reasons or the daily need to sneak out of the hospital to avoid paying the bill.

While the tendency at first is to constantly correct someone with dementia, you eventually come to understand to just go with the flow and let the conversation unfold, finding moments to return to reality when the opportunity presents itself.

The sadness comes knowing there is no cure yet for dementia. Once that journey begins there is no turning back.

Especially in this era of an aging baby boomer generation, the onset of dementia is likely to increase as that generation lives longer than any before it, pushing the boundaries of an active seniors’ lifestyle that might lead to an accident, like a bad fall, to just plain living beyond what our body or brain wants to allow.

Barry Gerding is the senior regional reporter for Black Press in the Okanagan.

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