What Does a Diagnosis of Dementia Mean?

Dementia is one of the most dreadful illnesses that can occur in our senior years. For most of us, the idea of losing our cognitive faculties is downright terrifying. What does it mean if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with dementia? How should you respond to a diagnosis? Dementia is a complicated disease with a steep learning curve for understanding it. Read on to learn some of the basics. 

What is Dementia?

Dementia refers to a group of conditions that are marked by loss of neural functioning in the brain. Alzheimer’s disease, Lewy Body dementia, and vascular dementia are among the most common types of dementia. People can also experience more than one form of dementia. This is called mixed dementia. 

We have nerve cells in our brains---called-neurons---that help other brain cells ‘talk’ to one another and form connections. When someone has dementia, the neurons stop doing their job and die off. With age, most of us experience some loss of neural functioning. People with dementia lose significantly more. 

What Are the Symptoms of Dementia?

Dementia can affect cognition (thinking), behavior, and emotions. Some of the most common symptoms are:

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Difficulties with memory including forgetting keys, people’s names, appointments
  • Communication difficulties
  • Hallucinations-seeing or hearing things that aren’t there
  • Delusions---believing facts that aren’t true

Behavioral symptoms

  • Changes in personality
  • Unpredictable moods or mood swings
  • Forgetting to eat
  • Forgetting to change clothes or bathe
  • Wandering

Emotional symptoms

  • Paranoia—thinking people are stealing from them or want to control them
  • Becoming agitated 
  • Frustration
  • Anger

Can People with Dementia Get Better?

Sadly, there is currently no cure for dementia. Dementia is, by nature, a progressive disease. Over time, someone with dementia will get worse. Eventually, most people with dementia require full-time care. Early on, though, dementia can be mild enough that it doesn’t greatly impact day-to-day functioning. 

There are medications that can treat symptoms of dementia, though none are touted as slowing the disease. A diagnosis of dementia doesn’t mean that someone will rapidly decline, however. Some people live with dementia for many years without becoming solely dependent on others for their well-being.

How to Cope with a Loved One’s Dementia

There is a tremendous amount of grief that accompanies the disease of dementia. In a very real sense, the person with dementia is not the person they used to be. Some people describe having a loved one with dementia as having lost their loved one before they die. This grief before grieving is sometimes called anticipatory grief.

In order to cope with the loss that accompanies a loved one’s advancing dementia, people need to go through the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, finally, acceptance). There is no timetable for how long it will take someone to go through the process of grief, and there is no wrong way to do it. Simply recognizing that you are experiencing grief can help.

Speaking with other people who are going through the same thing is beneficial for both patients and caregivers. Many local senior centers have caregiver support groups that people find helpful. Online communities can also offer support. If you are having trouble coping, speak to a medical professional about counseling. A skilled therapist can help with stress management and provide emotional support.

Communicating with Someone Who has Dementia

There are a great many complexities to the behavioral and communication aspects of dementia. It’s tremendously helpful to learn new ways of approaching communication with your loved one. You can’t learn it all at once, so here are two things that can help you right out of the gate. 

Adjust your expectationsIf you frequently feel like you’re banging your head against the wall, you haven’t let go of your pre-dementia expectations. You simply can’t expect that your loved one is going to communicate or behave in ways that always make sense to you. Know that when you talk with your loved one, they are going to tell you the same thing a hundred times, the conversation is going to meander, and they are going to come up with some outlandish ways of doing things. Expect those things and you’ll be a lot better off.

Learn to say yesThere is no faster way to fall down the rabbit hole than to disagree with someone who has dementia. People who work in dementia care advocate a technique called, “Yes, and…” The technique comes from comedy improv. No matter what a comic says, the other comics are never supposed to quash the idea. That brings the action to a halt. Instead, they say, “Yes, AND…,” and add whatever their idea is. 

The word ‘no’ has a similar effect on people with dementia. It may have taken the person a lot of effort to communicate their idea. To have to reassert their idea is frustrating. Instead of trying to ‘reason’ your loved one out of their idea, try saying yes. “Yes, it does makes sense to put the toothpaste in the refrigerator. Let’s keep an extra one in the bathroom, too.” “Yes, those (brand new) crackers are stale. Let’s try some toast instead.” 

You’ll find that saying yes prevents a lot of frustration for everyone involved. 


Stay tuned to learn about care options for loved ones with dementia.

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Helpful resources for dementia care


Alzheimer's Association