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Understanding Parkinson’s Dementia

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia and therefore most people have heard of it, but there are other kinds of dementia that can create unique challenges.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder of the nervous system and its most distinctive symptom is tremors. While these tremors are one of the earliest symptoms of the disease, there are many others as well as complications such as dementia. The Alzheimer’s Association states that an estimated 50 to 80% of people living with Parkinson’s disease eventually experience dementia, usually about 10 years from their diagnosis.

Know What to Look For

Not everyone living with Parkinson’s disease will develop dementia. There are signs to be aware of though. The Parkinson’s Disease Foundation cautions people to not jump to the conclusion that all memory lapses, confusion or slowed communication are in fact dementia as these symptoms can each be caused by other factors, including medication side effects and stress.

While not all dementia is Alzheimer’s, it is possible for someone to have both Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s, or to develop dementia as their Parkinson’s disease advances. Also, Lewy body dementia is distinctly different than Parkinson’s disease with dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, when someone is diagnosed with Parkinson’s based on movement symptoms and their signs of dementia do not show up until a year more later, it is Parkinson’s disease dementia; when both movement and dementia symptoms appear at the same or within a year of the movement symptoms, the diagnosis is dementia with Lewy bodies.  

If there is a concern about dementia, a health care provider should be consulted. Possible symptoms of Parkinson’s dementia include:

  • Visual hallucinations
  • Depression, as well as other emotional changes like anxiety
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Memory lapses and difficulty concentrating

Adapting Caring

Family caregivers of those living with Parkinson’s disease dementia will need to take care of themselves and their loved one as these changes progress.

There are support groups for both the care receiver and caregiver, which can be found through different organizations such as the National Parkinson Foundation, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research and the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.

Once a diagnosis of dementia is made and other potential causes of symptoms like depression ruled out and/or treated, it’s time to make adjustments. The Parkinson’s Disease Foundation recommends:

  1. Keep life simple as much as possible. This might mean decluttering the home environment or asking only yes or no questions to reduce the number of choices and confusion.
  2. Keep moving. Even as movement becomes impaired, exercise should remain part of the routine. Dancing has been found to help people living with Parkinson’s disease, for example. While some abilities may be reduced, there should still be an effort. This gives caregivers a chance to engage with their loved one in a familiar way, or provides a chance for both parties to socialize with others in a dance class or at a recreation center.
  3. Keep sharp. As much as possible, keep up hobbies that require mental stamina like word search games, puzzles, writing in a journal. Again, this is a chance to stay engaged in activities together.
  4. Don’t do it all for them. Make a list of what the person living with Parkinson’s disease needs to do and make a simple, but detailed list, so that they can accomplish things like brushing their teeth independently and free up the caregiver from a task.
As symptoms and abilities change with the progression of the illness, the caregiver will have to modify their care strategy and approach, while continuing to keep themselves well.
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