Changes do occur to the human brain with normal aging. There is no way around it. These changes may cause slower reactions, more time to recall a memory or a specific word, or slower reaction time. If you walk into a room and can’t remember why you did, you likely will retrace your steps and after thinking about it, realize what you were doing. These changes, though frustrating to those experiencing them, are quite normal.
For a person experiencing symptoms of dementia, neurons in the brain are beginning to die, and the loss of those neurons will cause gaps in their thinking and memories. I like to explain using analogies, and a complex road system comes to mind when I think about how a brain functions. Just like in a big city, there are many ways to get from point A to point B. We tend to travel the same path each time out of routine. But when construction occurs and we aren’t able to go that path, we can typically reroute and find another, possibly slower, way to our destination. That is normal aging. For a person who is experiencing brain change due to dementia, the task becomes more difficult. They run into more construction barricades as they try to navigate, and perhaps after being denied multiple times, just give up. Or perhaps they keep going and reach what they thought was point B, but don’t recognize the building. Where do they go then? They feel lost.
Dementia affects not just memories but also how a person observes and responds to the world around them. These changes become great enough that they begin to impact their daily activities in concerning ways. An example of not-normal aging involves a loss of safety awareness. A daughter was visiting her mother and noticed bugs on the dog food. She told her mother about it, and the mother’s solution was to put bug spray on the food. She was using skills that she had in the past, but her understanding of the appropriate use of the skill was no longer functioning. This changing ability to use logic and reasoning can lead to dangerous situations for them and others.
Learning basic brain structure and how each part functions can help you become a better care partner for a person living with dementia. Newcomers to the world of senior living and dementia care usually come with great compassion. However, they come unaware that supporting those with brain change requires new skill sets in understanding and communication. Imagine seeing a resident adding salt to their tea. Without an understanding of how the brain functions, the unaware person might take away the salt and put sugar in the glass for the person. They were being helpful. The person who is aware of how changes to the brain can affect visual perception and object recognition might get a new glass of tea, offer it with the sugar and say “Would you care for sugar in your tea?” and support the resident to accomplish the task independently. After, they may also make easy to read labels to place on the sugar and the salt. They were being helpful and using their awareness of brain change to create ongoing success while providing independence.
I personally have watched and read hours of classes and videos about the brain and continue to learn. I encourage you to do the same, and while doing so, ask yourself how you can use that new knowledge to better support and interact with your clients.