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Tackling the tricky topics

Senior woman chatting to her caretaker

Are you comfortable talking about the subject of mental health, sexuality or death? What if you were talking to your kids, partner or parents, and the subject was your own mental health, sexuality or death?

Many people will find at least one of these subjects difficult to talk about, despite public campaigns over the years to encourage open and honest discussion in the community.

Just as it can be hard to talk about our own mental health or death, it can be hard to talk about dementia. Why? Often, it is because many people are fearful of it, or they just don’t understand it.

This is why Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI), the global voice on dementia, launched a worldwide ‘Let’s Talk About Dementia’ campaign as part of Dementia Awareness Month in September. The campaign focusses on derailing the stigma around dementia and encourages people to have ongoing conversations about the disease.

The hope is by increasing awareness and normalising how people talk about dementia, the fear and stigma associated with it can be reduced, and more people will be encouraged to seek information and support if they need it.

One in seven Australians know a person living with dementia, but what if you have concerns about a loved one right now? What should you do if you think that maybe they have dementia?

We get asked this question a lot.

Usually, the person asking is concerned about memory problems or a change in behaviour in a partner, a parent, a family member or a close friend. They will often ask how to bring the subject up, or whether to bring it up at all.

If you are worried about someone in your life the first thing to do is talk to them about your concerns and encourage them to seek professional help. Although that sounds simple enough on paper, it can be a very difficult thing to do.

To begin with, it may not be dementia. There can be other reasons for increased forgetfulness or changes to a person’s mood. Infection and depression are two very common reasons.

With that in mind, approach the conversation with sensitivity and empathy. Imagine how you would feel if you were in the other person’s shoes?

Think about what you are going to say, before you say it. Try not to start the conversation with “I think you have dementia”, but rather “I’ve noticed you haven’t been yourself lately” or “I’ve noticed you have been having some difficulty with…”.

Plan when the best time will be to raise the subject. Pick a time you will both be relaxed, not tired or stressed. Avoid a time when you might be interrupted by other family members, or distracted by the television. A family gathering is not the ideal time. It should not feel like an intervention or an interrogation.

Be prepared for the person to say there is nothing wrong. It is possible they may not realise anything has changed, or they may be in denial. They may not be ready to have the conversation, or may need more time to process what you are saying.

Changes due to dementia can happen very gradually, over a number of months or even years, before people seek help. It is possible the person will have noticed these changes but may be too scared or embarrassed to say anything. It could take several conversations before the person is willing to acknowledge your concerns, or are willing to open up to you about how they are feeling.

Once you have both had a chance to talk about your concerns, the next step is to encourage the person to see their doctor. Reassure the person you will go with them and support them during the visit. If they are reluctant to go to the doctor, suggest another reason such as an annual check up. It can take many months to formally diagnose dementia, and the GP will want to rule out all other possible causes of the person’s symptoms first.

A diagnosis of dementia may be confronting, and will be life changing. Yet people often feel relief knowing what is causing their symptoms, and being able to seek support.

By talking about dementia with your loved ones, you will have started what one day could be a very important conversation.

How to talk to a loved one about dementia (PDF)

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