Monday 28 September 2015

Spotting dementia

My last D4Dementia blog was all about remembering the person, and as World Alzheimer’s Month draws to a close for 2015, I want to tackle another theme from this month of awareness raising – spotting the signs of dementia.

I’ve written previously about the symptoms of dementia, and I don’t want to replicate the information given in that blog post. If you are concerned that you may be developing dementia, or indeed that a person close to you could be, then you may find the information in that blog post helpful.

What I want to explore is the various prevailing attitudes around spotting the signs of dementia, and some of the issues around diagnosis, particularly in relation to health and social care professionals. In my work I see many different sides of the diagnosis coin, from people who are diagnosed in a timely and appropriate way to others who have to fight for a diagnosis. There is also another group who are perhaps best summed up as the ‘worried well’.

One of the most unfortunate side-effects of the fantastic work that’s been done to raise awareness of dementia in the UK is that there is, occasionally, a tendency to see any irregular lapses in memory or changes to a person’s approach to day-to-day life as the beginnings of dementia. Sometimes dementia may be behind such lapses or changes, or indeed MCI (Mild Cognitive Impairment - which isn’t dementia and may never lead to dementia), but it is also important to remember that as human beings we don’t live in a laboratory and are exposed to numerous other factors in our lives that can adversely affect us in ways that may appear to be related to dementia.

I have been reminded of this on more than one occasion so far in 2015 as I’ve gone about some of my consultancy work. I often visit care homes with a remit related to the provision of dementia care and support, and sometimes staff will detail concerns they have about a particular person in their care. From the outset I always say that concerns, no matter how trivial they may seem to the person relaying them, are always valid, and I would much rather social care staff are alert to changes in a person’s health and wellbeing than simply ignoring them.  

However, we must always remember that other medical conditions, side-effects of medication (and particularly multiple medications that stray into polypharmacy), spells in hospital, changes in living accommodation, changes in family relationships or bereavement, and even changes in the care home itself (different staff, routines or redecoration) can cause temporary, and sometimes more long-term, negative effects for older people. 

Those effects may appear to be related to dementia, and of course the development of dementia can co-exist with any of the factors I’ve listed above, but jumping to conclusions isn’t helpful for anyone, not least the older person living in that care home who is perhaps already feeling like they're living under a sizable microscope. Documenting changes to build up a reliable picture, whilst utilising person-centred care skills to address any newly found deficiencies in the person’s care or environment (more one-to-one time, reviewing health/medication, making time to talk and listen to the person, offering comfort, occupation etc) is perhaps more helpful than immediately chasing after a diagnostic label.

The flip side of these circumstances is often something I hear about when family members contact me with concerns about a loved one who is (usually) living alone. Often they will have noticed changes over a considerable period of time, and found themselves gradually providing more and more care for their loved one. For many people, input from their GP, alongside some diagnostic tests and perhaps a referral to a memory clinic is the way in which those concerns are addressed.

But unfortunately that isn’t the case for everyone. Amongst the many families who’ve contact me this year was one who’d had the input of two GP’s over a considerable period of time, with both doctors coming to the conclusion that the individual giving concern wasn’t developing dementia. This was despite, to the best knowledge of the family, neither GP conducting the full range of tests and assessments – potentially, of course, because the person concerned didn’t consent to them.

What happens between a doctor and their patient is of course confidential, and therefore my anecdote will always be open to questioning and counter argument. My main concern, however, is for the individual concerned, whose state of health is putting them at risk of living in an unclean, unhealthy and potentially dangerous environment, and for the family who are struggling to provide the support their loved one needs because they simply aren’t supported themselves.

Whether a diagnosis of dementia is ever forthcoming or not for this person isn’t really the main problem. In theory of course a diagnosis should open doors to care and support, possibly even some medication, but frankly care and support should be there regardless of the judgement of this person’s GP when the family as a whole have clear and unequivocal social care needs.

Hopefully the advice I’ve provided will help this family, and of course you can’t fight everyone’s battles, but I think these two examples really show how polarised and fragmented the situation around spotting and diagnosing dementia remains, and that’s just in the UK. I’d be the first to acknowledge that significant strides have been made since the 10 years that my dad went without his diagnosis, but the spotting of dementia still remains a subjective and sometimes inaccurate art that verges between too much enthusiasm to diagnose and total oblivion to the blindingly obvious.

As awareness-raising messages about spotting the signs of dementia are refined over the months and years ahead, some sensible middle ground is undoubtedly needed.
Until next time...
Beth x

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886

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