When Your Loved One Transitions To Cognitive Decline

“6.3 million people in Canada will develop, live with and/or ultimately die with dementia between 2020 and 2050.” Alzheimer Society of Canada

This staggering statistic suggests that within the next thirty years, you will likely know someone who is either showing symptoms or diagnosed with a loss of cognitive functioning. While some cognitive decline is expected with aging, experiencing substantial decline is considered to be abnormal.

What is Cognitive Decline?

When it comes to cognitive decline, memory, reasoning, concentration, problem solving, speech and the ability to learn and retain information is impacted. Cognitive decline ranges from mild to severe, and dementia is typically diagnosed with moderate cognitive decline. Dementia is not a disease or condition, it is an umbrella term that describes declining cognitive abilities that are generally caused by more than twenty-five different diseases and conditions that damage the brain over time. 

My Mom’s Journey with Parkinson’s

One of those diseases is Parkinson’s. My mom was diagnosed in 2003. At that time, the only thing my family knew about Parkinson’s was what we had learned from Michael J. Fox’s experience. We did not realize then that the disease would be progressive and degenerative, impacting every facet of my mom’s life.  She now lives in a long term-care home and recently, we have begun to see more of the signs you would typically observe with someone who is experiencing moderate cognitive decline. 

Having supported and cared for my mom through her journey, over the last twenty years, it has been difficult to see her body gradually decline. It has been even especially heartbreaking to see her lose parts of herself. Skills she had practiced all her life are slowly dwindling, while her hobbies, memories, and decision-making skills are fading as well.

Things I’ve Learned Along the Way

Our work of figuring out a whole new way of navigating her failing health and supporting her current needs has begun. Here are some of the things we have learned so far about living with cognitive decline:

  • Dementia is always caused by damage to the brain that results from a disease or condition. That said, symptoms of cognitive decline or an unexpected worsening can sometimes be caused by other health concerns including: UTI’s, medication, thyroid problems, and even vitamin deficiencies. Some symptoms caused by the above can potentially improve when the underlying problem is addressed. Flag any suspected concerns to the nursing staff or your doctor so they can be investigated and managed.
  • While there is currently no way to prevent or cure dementia, studies have shown that eating a healthy, “brain food” rich diet, engaging in regular exercise, keeping stress level low, playing games that stimulate brain function, playing an instrument, reading books, and engaging in social activities may help preserve brain function and slow the rate of mental decline. 
  • Many individuals with dementia experience mood swings or what we perceive as overreactions to little things. Sometimes they could also appear to be disengaged, uninterested, or irritable. Try not to take it personally, it’s not about you. In situations where we observe an inappropriate emotional response from our loved one, they may actually be trying to express an unmet need. Quite often, they may not have the words or thought process needed to clearly communicate it effectively.
  • As a caregiver, family member, or friend, you will likely have to develop a brand new set of communication skills to effectively interact with your loved one. This has been a big learning curve for my family, but every day is an opportunity to try again.
  • Ultimately, engaging with someone in cognitive decline, regardless of the stage, takes patience, understanding, and respect. On the bad days, when they are nothing like who they used to be, you may struggle to remember that this is a person you love. Your feelings are normal and valid, so don’t forget to give yourself some grace.
  • When you begin the work to figure out how best to support your loved one facing active cognitive decline, know that it won’t be easy. Be aware that the decline will likely only get worse and can lead to emotional struggle, as it has been with my family. Having a strong support system with people you can share your feelings and experiences with is key. If not with loved ones, consider joining a support group as the peer support can help you to cope along this journey.

Next Steps

Finally, as with all health challenges, knowledge is a good friend. Ensure you make the time to become educated about the many aspects of cognitive decline and find strategies that can make a difference for you and your loved one.

Don’t forget to check out our Concerned Friends Additional Resources page for links you may find helpful in all aspects of the long-term care and aging experience. 

Tymbi Gonsalves, Concerned Friends Volunteer

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