In November, two elderly Georgians suffering from dementia died, one from exposure and one in a shooting incident, after wandering away from home. While such situations are rare, it is important to be prepared to assist those who may be experiencing trouble. Kenneth Mitchell, an instructor and field coordinator with the University of North Georgia's human services delivery and administration program, has spent 30 years in the field of gerontology. Mitchell, who holds a master's degree in social work and served as director of AARP Georgia for 15 years, talks about dementia and aging.
What should we do when encountering an elderly person who seems to be in trouble?
If an older person is confused or disoriented, it is usually appropriate to ask if they need assistance. If they are experiencing cognitive impairment, they are likely not to know their name, location, or the date and time. Older adults experiencing dementia may be very pleasant, become agitated, or may be non-verbal and not respond at all. Through a program of the Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders Association, some family caregivers have secured a wrist identification band for their loved one who has been diagnosed with dementia. Information on the wristband can assist the person in getting help if they become lost.
Does a memory lapse mean that an elderly person has dementia?
While most people experience some memory loss as they age, dementia is a disease that attacks the brain. Dementia symptoms like confusion and disorientation can be caused by disease, allergic reactions to medications, medication interactions, drug and alcohol interactions, depression, and Alzheimer's disease.
Alzheimer's destroys brain cells and can be slowed in some case, but not reversed; diagnosis requires a battery of tests to rule out other conditions that could be causing dementia symptoms. While some estimates show that as many as half of nursing home residents may be experiencing dementia, only about 30 percent of cases have been shown to be caused by Alzheimer's.
Research has shown that "healthy brain hygiene" can maintain brain function and reduce memory loss associated with aging. Crossword puzzles and brain games, lifelong learning, exercise, and a healthy diet have improved memory loss attributed to aging.
How or when should I have a conversation with my elderly parent, relative or neighbor if I have concerns about their social isolation, health or economic security?
It is important to respect an older adult's dignity and their right to choose how and where they live. Studies have shown that 87 percent of older adults prefer to live independently in their own homes as long as they can maintain quality of life. Social, economic and health factors often determine if an older adult elects to move in with family, older adult housing, an assisted-living facility, or a retirement community.
Eighty-five percent of older adults function independently with little or no assistance; 10 percent with one or more limitations on daily activities receive some level of assistance, usually from family members. The frail elderly (5 percent) with three or more limitations and significant health problems need around-the-clock care, and usually live in intermediate or skilled-care nursing homes. Many older adults who suffer a fall or acute health care episode may receive rehabilitation therapy and regain their mobility or ability to function independently. Chronic disease management programs also may help older adults take steps to improve or maintain health.
If older adults are becoming socially isolated, experiencing poor health that effects the ability to take care of themselves, or are struggling to meet expenses on a fixed income, family members can contact the Eldercare Locator at 1-800-677-1116 or www.eldercare.gov/ for information on local resources. The Administration on Aging provides this service to older adults and family caregivers to link them to information and referral specialists in the community and trained outreach workers who can make an assessment and assist families to explore care options.