What to Expect When Your Parent Has Dementia

According to a recent estimate from the World Health Organization (WHO), dementia currently impacts 55 million adults across the globe, and this number is projected to reach 78 million by 2030. If you have a parent who suffers from this rampant illness, then you know just how much of a mental, emotional, and physical toll it can take on the entire family.

Watching your loved one’s cognitive function decline as their symptoms progress can be painful. But as hard as it feels to cope with the inevitable changes of dementia, your parent will need you to be there for them as much as possible. So here’s what to expect with dementia, from the initial onset to each stage of the illness, so that you can offer the right kind of support.

What to Be Aware of in the Early Stage of Dementia

In most cases, dementia affects senior adults over the age of 65. Once your parent receives a diagnosis, it’s important to consider their overall prognosis. While there’s no cure for dementia, the illness does not always progress at an accelerated rate.

The Alzheimer’s Association reports it can take anywhere from 2–7 years before a dementia patient will require full-time institutional care. Because some forms of dementia escalate gradually, consult with your parent’s doctor to formulate a care plan that enables them to maintain a sense of control and personal autonomy at this stage.

While the onset of dementia can be mild initially, there are still a few common symptoms to look for. For instance, your parent could start to lose concentration, forget basic details, have difficulty learning new information, or exhibit shifts in mood (such as apathy or depression). They might also need minimal hands-on assistance, but ensure to include them in treatment decisions and conversations about their future.

What to Be Aware of in the Middle Stage of Dementia

You will notice a more significant decline in your parent’s cognitive function at this stage. They’ll have some awareness of their condition, but over time, it will become more difficult for them to express and regulate emotions, retain memories or information, and perform essential daily tasks. As a result, your parent will need more intensive treatment.

This could mean finding a memory care and assisted living community, or it could mean taking on the role of a full-time caregiver. But whichever option you choose, remember that your parent needs to feel safe and supported.

As their illness progresses, your loved one might encounter all sorts of complicated emotions, such as anxiety, confusion, distress, anger, disorientation, fear, and grief. Dementia can bring about upheavals and unknowns for everyone affected—but for the patient most of all, so it’s vital to be a soothing, stable presence they can count on.

What to Be Aware of in the Later Stage of Dementia

The final stage of dementia is also the most severe—your parent will lose their motor control, verbal communication, and ability to care for themselves. Their memory impairment will make it hard to recognize time, place, names, and faces. They’ll also need constant help with basic tasks such as dressing, eating, walking, and personal hygiene.

This level of dependence can cause intense agitation, so remember that erratic behaviors or extreme mood swings are common. Ultimately, there will come a time when your parent’s illness becomes terminal, and their mental and physical limitations require 24-7 care.

It’s harrowing to watch a loved one painfully deteriorate, but your role at this stage is still crucial. Focus on making your parent feel comfortable. Do what you can to help alleviate their pain and suffering. Invest in your own self-care so you’re able to remain calm and emotionally regulated for their benefit. This final stage is undeniably stressful, so tend to yourself whenever possible—this will give you the stamina to show up for your parent.

Tips to Care for a Parent or Loved One with Dementia

A 2022 poll from Cleveland Clinic shows that 36 percent of caregivers are too busy to look after their own mental health, which can lead to higher rates of anxiety, depression, or burnout. This is why it’s vital to enter your new role with a clear plan of action to provide sustainable, consistent support for your loved one without running out of steam. Think of the tips below as a blueprint to walk your parent—and yourself—through the transitions of dementia.

  • Build a network of physicians, friends, relatives, and other caregivers who can share the responsibilities or offer respite care when you need a break.
  • Educate yourself on the specifics of what dementia care entails, so you’ll have realistic expectations and practical solutions when a challenge arises.
  • Have a conversation with your parent and other family members to discuss treatment plans, legal and financial matters, and long-term care options.
  • Talk to your loved one in a direct, concise manner––the clearer you can communicate, the easier it will be for them to process your words cognitively.
  • Prepare yourself in advance for emotional outbursts or troubling behaviors from your parent, and form strategies to soothe or redirect their attention.
  • Create a familiar, structured routine, so your parent will have a sense of order in their environment rather than feeling unstable or thrown off-guard.
  • Set aside time for personal activities, hobbies, interests, and stress relievers outside of your role as a caregiver—this is not selfish, it’s actually crucial.
  • Lead with compassion in all interactions with your loved one, and remember they feel just as much confusion and frustration as you do (if not more).

Dementia is scary, and it can be overwhelming to support a loved one through it, but you’re not alone. From the initial diagnosis to the final end-of-life decisions, it’s alright to ask for help. The more resources, assistance, and information you seek, the more equipped you will be to come alongside your parent at each stage in the journey howitstart.

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