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Watching for Signs of Dementia in a Loved One


Most people think of dementia as being primarily related to memory loss. While it’s true that memory issues are often warning signs of new or worsening dementia, the term refers to a much broader set of symptoms that interfere with daily life. Family caregivers who are only looking for memory loss-related symptoms risk missing other serious warning signs, so keep an eye out for these additional red flags.

Surprising Changes in Mood or Personality

Dementia patients often experience alarming shifts in mood, personality, and behavior. In some cases, these changes make sense. People who are losing cognitive abilities may no longer find activities as satisfying as before. 

Depression is also a very common symptom of dementia that can cause significant changes in mood and personality and further impact a person’s ability to engage in activities that used to be loved. Social withdrawal, apathy, and insensitive behavior are all common personality changes that often accompany declines in cognitive function associated with dementia, as well. Seeking medical and psychiatric services for those exhibiting mood changes can be helpful, particularly early on in the development of dementia symptoms when it can be difficult to distinguish from those of depression.

Confusion About Time and Place

Most people forget the day of the week once in a while but can piece information together to figure it out eventually. For people with dementia, confusion about not just the day of the week but also the time of the day or even seasons of the year is common. This often manifests initially as difficulty with remembering appointments even though it’s written on the calendar. As cognitive decline continues, it may become increasingly agitated and confused about keeping track of events.

Some seniors in the early stages of dementia also tend to forget places. This could involve getting lost even in familiar places. Loved ones may not notice the change until a new place is introduced, and notice seniors struggling more than usual with navigating them. In some cases, more advanced dementia patients also confuse contemporary places and people with those from their past. When dementia progresses to this point, it’s time to start looking into memory care for seniors.

Difficulty With Planning and Following Instructions

While people’s abilities to plan effectively and follow instructions vary significantly across individuals and their lifespans, a decreasing ability to plan and execute tasks can be an early warning sign of dementia. Common examples include forgetting how to follow recipes or balance a checkbook, even with the information readily available. 

In some cases, difficulty completing tasks can be attributed to lapses in attention. In others, the problems are due more to losses of executive function. Either way, the results may eventually become noticeable to spouses, family members, and other loved ones. If a loved one is creating dangerous situations for the person, moving to an assisted living community may be beneficial.

Disruptive Sleep Patterns

Researchers have only recently made the connection between disrupted sleep and dementia risk. People in all stages of dementia have trouble sleeping. Maybe waking up frequently throughout the night or very early in the morning and having trouble falling back asleep. 

So far, researchers have not been able to confirm a causal relationship between sleep disruptions and dementia, or vice versa. However, there is evidence that people who get less than six hours of sleep per night in their 50s and 60s are around 30% more likely to develop dementia later in life. New difficulties with sleep that occur with advanced age, on the other hand, could be a sign that dementia is worsening sleep rather than an indication that poor sleep quality is increasing dementia risk. Either way, senior wellness programs often focus on improving sleep hygiene, which could be beneficial.

Patterns of Poor Judgment

Dementia often causes a worsening of judgment that can eventually place seniors in danger. While younger people tend to think of poor judgment calls as being things like staying up too late on a work night, this problem tends to manifest itself differently in dementia patients. 

Common examples include:

Sudden lapses in financial judgment in older adults may also be signs of the onset of dementia. For someone who has never been good with money, an unexpected purchase may not be much to worry about. However, seniors who have always been financially savvy but suddenly start spending beyond their means or becoming victimized by scammers may well be experiencing cognitive decline.

As a person’s judgment becomes worse, it may require increasing amounts of supervision. Family caregivers should take early warning signs of this problem seriously and take steps to protect their loved ones, whether that means taking over tasks like paying bills and shopping or arranging respite care when the rest of the family is out of town and no one is available to check in.

Changes in Sensory Perception

People in the early stages of certain types of dementia sometimes begin to experience changes in sensory perception. A gradual decline in a person’s sense of smell often accompanies the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, for example. Seniors may also begin to struggle with visual perception. Difficulty reading or driving, trouble distinguishing colors and contrast, and the inability to judge distances correctly can all be early warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease, as well.

How to Help Seniors With Cognitive Decline

Dementia is a devastating disease, not just for those who suffer from it but for their family members, as well, but help is available. Here at Chelsea Senior Living, we believe that all aging adults deserve to live out their final years with peace, privacy, and dignity, which is why we have created the Country Cottage program for seniors with dementia and memory impairment. We maintain many communities across New Jersey and New York, so call (877) CHELSEA to speak with a care coordinator today.