In many ways, your memory shapes who you are. It makes up the stories you tell about yourself and what you’ve done with your life. Losing these memories, and experiencing the beginning stages of dementia, can be overwhelming. However, there are many ways to cope. The first step is learning more.

Rather than a disease, dementia is a general term used to describe a collection of symptoms, including memory loss, personality changes and impaired reasoning. Generally, at least two symptoms must be present for a dementia diagnosis. Often people think of these symptoms as normal signs of aging, but they are not. In fact, symptoms can be so severe that they affect daily living, personal safety and how the individual relates to others.

Alzheimer’s is one form of dementia and, perhaps, the one that most people recognize. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common, affecting more than 5 million Americans age 65 and older, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Often, the exact cause is unknown, although family history and age are often considered factors that increase your risk.

Common symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include:

  • Memory loss that affects daily living
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks
  • Problems with language
  • Disorientation of time and place
  • Poor or impaired judgment
  • Problems with abstract thinking
  • Changes in mood, behavior or personality
  • Loss of initiative

Lewy Body Dementia

Also known as “cortical Lewy body disease” or “diffuse Lewy body disease,” Lewy body dementia is the second-most common cause of dementia. It affects about 1.4 million Americans age 50 and older.

The cause of Lewy body dementia is unknown. Experts believe it’s closely linked to AD because people who have Lewy bodies (abnormal groups of protein in nerve cells) in their brains also have the plaques and tangles associated with AD.

Common symptoms of Lewy body dementia include:

  • Visual hallucinations
  • Movement disorders (rigid muscles, tremors)
  • Poor regulations of body function
  • Poor or impaired judgment
  • Problems with abstract thinking
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Depression

Vascular Dementia

Vascular dementia, also known as “multi-infarct dementia” or “post-stroke dementia,” is the third-most common type of dementia. It can develop after a stroke blocks an artery in your brain. However, strokes don’t always cause vascular dementia. Whether a stroke affects your thinking and reasoning depends on its severity and location.

Vascular dementia can also result from other conditions that damage blood vessels and reduce circulation. These conditions can keep your brain from getting the vital oxygen and nutrients it needs to function properly.

Vascular dementia symptoms vary, depending on the part of your brain where blood flow was impaired. Symptoms can develop suddenly or over a long period of time. Often, symptoms overlap with those of other types of dementia – especially Alzheimer’s disease.

Common symptoms of vascular dementia include:

  • Memory loss that affects daily living
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks
  • Poor or impaired judgment
  • Problems with organizing thoughts
  • Decrease ability to analyze situations
  • Changes in mood, behavior or personality
  • Sudden or frequent urge to urinate or inability to control passing urine
  • Depression

Mixed Dementia

Mixed dementia is a condition in which the abnormal protein deposits associated with AD coexist with blood vessel conditions linked to vascular dementia, or with the Lewy bodies of Lewy body dementia. In some cases, people have all three brain changes.

Symptoms of mixed dementia vary, depending on the types of brain changes involved and the brain regions that are affected. In many cases, symptoms may be similar to – or even the same as – those of AD or another type of dementia.

Coping with Dementia

If you’ve been recently diagnosed with dementia, it’s normal to feel a wide range of emotions – everything from fear and frustration to loneliness and depression. But there’s much you can do to cope with, and help manage, its early stages.

These strategies can help you cope with dementia:

  • Stay connected. It’s normal to feel alone after your diagnosis. But isolation can make you feel worse. Reaching out and staying connected to your loved ones can provide you with the support you need. You could also join a support group to meet other people who share your diagnosis, and to learn more about the disease.
  • Take care of your physical well-being. This means eating healthy, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep. Eating a well-balanced diet rich in complex carbohydrates (whole grains, beans, fruits and veggies) and omega 3 fatty acids (salmon, mackerel, canola and walnuts) do your body and brain good. They can help combat feelings of stress and frustration.
    Exercise also does your body good. Just 20 minutes of heart-pumping activity can decrease stress hormones and increase endorphins, which are often referred to as the body’s “feel-good chemicals.” Exercise classes like Yoga, Qi Gong and Tai Chi can help you find balance.
    Finally, getting enough sleep each night can help you cope with difficult emotions that often accompany a dementia diagnosis. Quality rest can also help you recover from daily stresses, leaving you feeling more energized in the morning.
  • Take care of your mental well-being. Your mental well-being is just as important as your physical well-being. Managing your stress can help put your mind at ease and give you the tools you need to cope with a dementia diagnosis. Consider taking a mindfulness-based stress reduction class.
  • Develop a daily routine. Although variety and stimulation are important, too much change at once can be confusing if you have dementia. Setting up a regular routine can help you feel more secure, and it can make it easier for you to remember what usually happens throughout the day. A routine can also help you keep track of time. You might find that your sense of time is “off,” and you can’t remember what you’ve done or still need to do. It might also find it hard to judge how much time has passed or to anticipate what will happen next. A daily routine can help you with this difficulty.
  • Create a dementia-friendly environment. This can include organizing your belongings in a way that makes finding items you use daily easy. Try keeping things in the same place, or put labels on drawers and doors. These reminders can help you keep track of where things are kept throughout your home.
  • Keep a journal. Writing down your thoughts, feelings and emotions can be an effective way to cope with dementia. Writing things down can help reduce stress and improve your health and well-being.
  • Maintain your favorite activities and hobbies. Continuing to participate in your favorite activities and hobbies can help you maintain your independence. It can also help you feel valued because it relates to past roles and experiences like raising children or helping around the house. Keeping up with your activities and hobbies can also promote a sense of belonging – especially if you share the experiences with a loved one.

When Your Loved One has Dementia

A dementia diagnosis can be difficult – for the person with the disease, as well as for family members. Caring for a loved one who has dementia can impact every aspect of your life. It can leave you feeling fearful, lonely or frustrated. But your care can make the biggest difference to your loved one’s quality of life. Just remember that you cannot help someone else without taking care of yourself first.

Here are some things you can try:

  • Make your own health a priority. Just as your loved one should eat healthy, exercise regularly and get enough rest – so should you. Research shows that dementia caregivers are often feel run down, exhausted or socially isolated, putting them at an increased risk for depression and illness. So, practicing healthy habits is even more important for you. Shoot for 20 minutes of heart-pumping exercise each day, and eight hours of quality sleep each night.
  • Reach out to trusted friends and family members. As a caregiver, you may feel stressed, anxious or overwhelmed. It’s normal to feel this way, so give yourself permission to be vulnerable. Reach out to trusted family members for encouragement, support and help.
  • Learn as much as you can about dementia. Knowing what to expect can help you become better prepared to handle the changes and challenges associated with dementia.
  • Join a support group. You’ll find that you’re not alone. In fact, about 15 million Americans provide care for others who have dementia. By joining a support group, you can learn from the experiences of others who have faced the same challenges. Connecting with others who know first-hand what you’re going through can also help reduce feelings of fear and isolation.
  • Learn to manage your stress. Caring for a loved one who has dementia can be stressful, but there are things you can do to manage your stress. Try deep breathing, journaling, exercising or simply enjoying the sunshine outdoors. You can also participate in a mindfulness-based stress reduction class . Making time for these activities can help reduce the stress of caregiving, and it can boost your mood and energy level.
  • Ask for help. It’s important to reach out to friends, family members and volunteer organizations. Accepting help for routine chores like grocery shopping or cleaning can enable you to spend more time with, and caring for, your loved one. And when someone offers to help provide care, let them. You’re not being neglectful of your loved one. Caregivers who take time for themselves tend to provide better care for their loved one.

Regardless of whether you or your loved one has dementia, coping with the disease can be overwhelming. But you don’t have to “go it alone.” Parkview Behavioral Health offers Parkview BridgeWays, an inpatient program, and Parkview LifeBridge Senior Program, a short-term community-based program to assist individuals and families affected by dementia.

For additional help and support, call the Parkview Behavioral Health HelpLine at (260) 373-7500 or (800) 284-8439, anytime 24 hours a day. Our dedicated assessment specialists are available to guide you to the appropriate level of care for your situation.