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The hardest conversation: How to talk to a loved one about dementia

Worried about memory loss in a loved one? We have all walked into a room with purpose, only to forget what we wanted. Or forgotten where we parked the car. These are normal memory lapses that are usually due to busyness or tiredness.

For some people, though, these lapses become more often and more extreme. This may be forgetting you have a car, not just where you parked it. Or being confused and disoriented at a place you go to regularly.

Sometimes the early signs are not memory at all. It can be not knowing a common word, or using an inappropriate word in its place. Or difficulty carrying out a task you do all the time, like cooking your favourite go-to dish.

So what do you do if you notice an increase in memory lapses, or unexplained changes in thinking and behaviour in yourself or a loved one? Is it dementia, and is it time to seek medical advice?

This can be a difficult and awkward conversation.

Unfortunately, with 41,000 West Australians currently diagnosed with dementia, and projections indicating this number to double in the next 20 years, more and more families are going to be having this conversation.

It is important to seek a medical opinion as early as possible. A diagnosis of dementia is a process of elimination and can take some time to diagnose. It is important to know what type of dementia you have. This will help you anticipate the changes typically experienced and help you plan for the journey ahead.

Sometimes people may ask: why bother getting a diagnosis? There are many specialised support services available to a person diagnosed with dementia, and their carer. These services provide information on how to maintain the best quality of life and support individuals to stay at home and engage with the local community for as long as possible.

There are also treatments that may be helpful in slowing the progression of the disease.

We often hear from clients that, after the initial shock of the diagnosis, it is a relief to have an explanation for the changes in function and the symptoms being experienced. The diagnosis enables planning to commence, which often replaces the sense of helplessness when you don’t know the cause of the changes being experienced.

Finally, remember that a diagnosis doesn’t define who a person is. Life changes with a diagnosis of dementia, but it doesn’t end.

A diagnosis can empower individuals and families to plan and take as much control as possible so that they can live their lives to the fullest. Speak to other family members, your GP or call the Alzheimer’s WA support line to work out how you can best help someone you are concerned about.

Above all, be supportive, keep the communication lines open — and have the conversation.

The first big step

Choose the time and place
Minimise the number of people involved in the conversation. Choose a time when neither person is busy, tired or distracted. The morning is usually best. Use a place that is comfortable, familiar, quiet and free of background noise and distractions.

Talk with compassion
A person experiencing these changes may not realise anything is wrong. Changes in the brain can interfere with a person’s ability to have insight into memory lapses, or changes in their behaviour.

Talk about the symptoms not a diagnosis
It may not be dementia. There are many conditions that can cause memory loss and the other symptoms that are commonly associated with dementia.

Be patient
Allow your loved one time to come to terms with the idea something might not be right with them. It may take a few conversations for them to realise what you are saying.

Encourage them to see a doctor
If there is resistance to seeing a doctor about these symptoms, then suggest an appointment for another reason, such as a blood pressure check or review of any medication currently being taken. Go to the appointment together so you can support each other and make sure you understand the next steps.


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