Does My Parent Have Dementia or Alzheimer’s: What’s the Difference?

May 29, 2009 at 2:40 am 3 comments

What exactly is dementia? Is it different than Alzheimer’s?

Most family members aren’t quite sure what the difference is when their loved one is first diagnosed. The questions continue:

How will our lives change? Can Dad still drive? Should Mom continue to with us? Is it safe?  

I felt like I had been kicked in the gut when my mother got Alzheimer’s. I had all the ghastly images in my head of people locked in a facility, completely devoid of thought and not recognizing their family, or even who they were. I went to the worst place possible.

In time, and with much reading, learning, asking questions, and figuring out how to handle my mother physically and emotionally, I became less scared. My mother was still my mother–and perhaps most importantly–I was still her daughter.

If you’re at the beginning of this journey and you’re still in the freaking out stage, then realize you’ve got your own processing to do. In the beginning, I could hardly bring myself to say the word.

After you catch your breath, start on the learning curve.

What’s the difference in dementia and Alzheimer’s? Well, there’s no better place to visit than the Alzheimer’s Association or Mayo Clinic. When it comes to something this life changing, their research and commitment to caring for those who struggle with these diseases are unprecedented. 

In a nutshell, dementia is the deteriorating of mental functions–to the point to where it effects your daily life (job, personal care, relationships). Dementia is actually a name for a group of symptoms. It can be caused by many things (alcohol abuse, accidents, other medical conditions). So consider the word, “dementia” as an umbrella term–and your first of many stops along the way.

Alzheimer’s is actually a type of dementia. It’s the most common type and it causes a severe decline in intellectual and social function. The brain begins to degenerate, which causes the symptoms to increase over time.

How Do I Educate Myself about Dementia and Caregiving?

  • Piece it together. There’s no one straight path. Go to the ‘net, but remember to “consider the source.” For medical information, stick with the professionals, for personal experience, check out blogs and other more personal experience based sites.
  • Go to the library or buy books on the subject. Get several, and make sure some of them offer practical every day advice–on how to handle behavior issues, which is a big issue when dealing with Alzheimer’s.
  • Join a caregiving support group. Most communities have one, or more. Call your local Alzheimer’s Association chapter, call your local hospital, check out your local  elder affairs office or senior community center or adult day care center. There are so many people out there ready to help you. Just poke your head out and you’ll find you’re among friends.
  • Do it your way. Don’t limit yourself to just the medical community. Literature, poetry, art, and music all explore this experience and can offer you insight and relief. How you perceive dementia and Alzheimer’s effects how you deal with it.
  • Keep an ongoing list of questions. Ask everyone. Ask your doctor, your nurse, your neighbor. Questions get answers, over time–so don’t give up.
  • Don’t settle. Find a doctor you like and respect. Ask your caregiving group who they recommend.
  • Don’t try to go it alone–get home help now. Don’t wait until things are out of control.
  • Check out a care home. As difficult as that may be, take a friend with you and begin to explore your options. One day you may need them, and you don’t want to have to make a rushed decision.

Is it all bad news? Absolutely not! My mother and I still had many, many good times together after her diagnosis. We shopped, laughed, had a couple of good mother-daughter squabbles. I value that time. In so many ways, she was cuter and funnier, and I could forgive and let go of so much. After all, how do you stay mad at someone who calls you “little girl?” (That was what she called me after she forgot my name).

I learned a lot in those first few years, and the more I learned, the less afraid I became.

Entry filed under: brain fitness, caring for parents, elder care, family caregiving. Tags: , , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Elizabeth  |  August 12, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    I have learned a lot about these 2 diseases through a blog that i subscribe to ( Brain Health Blog…

    • 2. Carol O'Dell  |  August 13, 2009 at 7:51 pm

      Thanks for sharing this resource. I found that reading about dementia/Alzheimer’s helped me understand why my mother was acting the way she was–and I found that I didn’t take things personal and was able to step back a bit and give her the patience and respect she deserved.
      Hope you keep reading!

  • […] or just  need to take a walk.  Is it safe to step out for a  few minutes? Few hours? All day? Caregivers want to know. They have jobs, need to take care of their personal life and health, and just need a […]


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This Blog

Hi, I'm Carol O'Dell. This blog will include stories and lessons I've learned while caring for my mom, and now as I speak to caregivers around the country. I hope to offer suggestions, ideas and insights that will help others.

While this blog is supported by Dakim Brain Fitness, I’m not blogging to promote the Dakim company or products. Instead, I’m writing about how caring and being cared for affects your life and your family. My hope is that this blog gives you a place to learn, reflect, gain new perspective to make it another day.

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