Dementia – how the festive season can help

Over the holidays you catch up with people you haven’t seen for a while – and, if you haven’t seen someone for a while, changes can become more obvious. The festive season, being a time of stress, puts people’s coping abilities to the test and you may notice they don’t manage as well as they used to. Perhaps your mother isn’t quite as organised in her cooking as she once was, and your father has to help out a lot more than he did in the past.

In the noise and chaos of a family get-together you might realise that your elderly uncle is not contributing to the conversation and appears exhausted by trying to keep up with what is going on around him. He gets irritable when people ask him questions about what he has been doing lately and gives vague answers that don’t tell you anything.

Your aunt keeps forgetting the names of her nephews and nieces although she has always taken a great deal of interest in their activities and achievements. You find her in the hall, puzzled about where to find the bathroom in the house that she has visited for Christmas dinner every year for decades.

You notice your cousin’s car has multiple dents and scratches and his wife confides that she hates driving with him because his judgement of the traffic is not as good as it used to be. He makes inappropriate jokes (though he is usually quite refined) and his table manners have deteriorated.

Any of these changes could be signs of cognitive decline; the early stages of dementia. Dementia is such an insidious process, it can go unnoticed by people in daily contact with the person developing the condition.

However, the changes may be much more noticeable to someone meeting a person again after six months or a year. The demands of the holiday season – travel, being in unfamiliar places, preparing meals and being with large numbers of people – tax everyone’s skills, but especially if the ability to cope with stressful situations has deteriorated.  It is worth encouraging people who look as if they might be developing dementia to visit their GP.

It’s important to make sure that there is nothing else going on; physical illness, sensory problems (like deafness) or depression can all look like dementia. These are often treatable so that the person can have an improved quality of life.

Even if the diagnosis is dementia, most people and their families, though devastated, find it helpful to know what is happening and be able to plan for the future. Although there is no cure for dementia, there are many ways that someone’s life can be improved and the symptoms managed, especially with support from organisations like Dementia Auckland.

A diagnosis does not mean the end of an enjoyable life; in fact, once people with dementia and those around them adapt to the situation and learn ways to cope, everyone benefits.

There can still be many more happy Christmases ahead.

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 ( Story originally written for Stuff.co.nz)

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Specialist Psychiatrist and Clinical Advisor to Dementia Auckland. Old Age Psychiatrist and Dementia. Auckland Clinical Services Advisor.