5 Things Every Social Worker Should Know About Dementia

Dementia is a brain disease that affects a person’s memory and other cognitive and social functions. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, over five million Americans are currently living with a type of dementia (http://www.alz.org/facts/). Dementia most often affects senior citizens, and people with Down Syndrome are especially susceptible to the disease. Social workers often help both patients and families cope with the challenges that dementia presents. There are five things every social worker should know about dementia in order to best assist families.

Dementia Causes Conflict Within Families

Even the closest knit of families can be thrown off center by dementia’s impact. Social workers often assist caregivers with meeting the patient’s needs, but also may have to intervene on familial dementia care-related conflicts.

Often one family member will take on the role of caregiver, with other members offering support and respite. Social Work Today reports that over 15 million caregivers are “working significantly more hours than non-dementia caregivers” (http://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/051412p18.shtml). When family members are put under the strain of caring for a person with dementia, old conflicts, family dynamics, and new challenges can easily put pressure on a family.

Social workers often assist families with making key decisions, getting assistance for the patient, and other needs.

Dementia Doesn’t Just Affect Memory

In addition to cognitive and social impairment, dementia can cause other symptoms, like swallowing disorders, immobility, and malnutrition (http://naswil.org/news/chapter-news/featured/alzheimers-disease-related-dementias-social-works-role-in-helping-individuals-and-families/). Malnutrition often leads to pneumonia, which is the leading cause of death in dementia patients.

Patients also experience depression and anxiety, especially when they have a history of mood disorders. These complications require social workers and caregivers to use a multifaceted, whole-picture approach when developing and carrying out care plans.

Patients Can Live With Dementia for Many Years

With regular exercise, a balanced diet, and plenty of activities, patients can live for as many as 20 years after diagnosis with dementia. In most cases, dementia onset is gradual and patients can continue living independently. It’s helpful for families to maintain a daily routine, continue regular activities, and limit unfamiliar situations, enabling the patient to adjust more easily as the disease progresses.

Social workers can assist families with creating routines and schedules, as well as seeking social services and assistance.

Early Signs of Dementia May Not Always Be Obvious

Early signs include apathy, repeating actions or obsessively collecting items, and changes in mood (http://www.healthline.com/health/dementia/early-warning-signs#Symptoms2). Family members may mistake dementia-related behavior for pre-existing personality quirks or may even chalk it up to senility or stubbornness. Often, caregivers are even baffled at dementia patients’ behavior. Recognizing the symptoms for early diagnosis is integral to a patient’s quality of life.

Drivers With Dementia Pose Serious Safety Concerns

Though patients with new or mild dementia can continue leading an independent life, social workers and families must evaluate the patient’s ability to drive as the disease progresses. Patients and caregivers may be reluctant to relinquish driving privileges — especially when it is associated with independence — but memory loss, visual-spatial disorientation, and decreased cognitive function can severely impair a person’s ability to safely drive. Driving abilities should be addressed and evaluated regularly in order to ensure both the patient’s and other people’s safety. Evaluations are available through the DMV, but social workers and family members can use the Alzheimer’s Association’s resources to evaluate patients.

Dementia can often be a challenging disease, but with proper management, care, and support, patients can lead a fulfilling life. Social workers are indispensable in assisting both caregivers and patients, and can make a huge difference in patients’ quality of life.

Related Resource: Top 10 Best Online Social Work Degree Programs