Coping with dementia

Julianne Moore in Still Alice. Picture: PA
Julianne Moore in Still Alice. Picture: PA
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Still Alice hasn’t just scooped Julianne Moore a best actress Oscar, it has also put dementia in the spotlight.

The movie, about a doctor who discovers she has early-onset Alzheimer’s, will no doubt resonate with millions – and for British composer Ilan Eshkeri, who wrote the film’s haunting soundtrack, it was also a chance to express his own experience of the illness.

Eshkeri’s grandmother has Alzheimer’s and he says her battle, and the fact two of his friends lost family members to the condition – director Matt Whitecross and Ash lead singer Tim Wheeler, whose fathers both had Alzheimer’s – was behind his decision to create the score for Still Alice.

“The subject matter for me was very important. My grandmother has old age dementia, which has been hard for my family,” says Eshkeri, 37. “It really connected with me and I knew I had to do it.

“Emotionally, I found it quite a cathartic experience,” he says. “Some of the lines in the film really hit me, and the process did take me to some dark places.”

ON THE RISE

The condition is touching more and more lives – more than 856,000 people in the UK now have it, and numbers are rising steadily, with one in every 14 people aged 65 and over affected.

Dementia describes many different brain disorders that trigger a progressive loss of brain function, and the Alzheimer’s Society says that while Alzheimer’s is the most common form – affecting 62 per cent of dementia patients – there are many other types too, including vascular dementia, which affects 17 per cent of those diagnosed, and mixed dementia, affecting ten per cent.

Symptoms include memory loss, confusion and problems with speech and understanding. The condition is ultimately terminal but for the most part it’s living with it which is often most difficult – as well as being immensely distressing for the sufferer, it can be devastating and heartbreaking for their loved ones, too.

SEEKING SUPPORT

“People with dementia can go downhill very fast, or they can stay well for as long as possible,” explains Professor June Andrews, director of the Dementia Services Development Centre at the University of Stirling, whose new book, Dementia: The One-Stop Guide, aims to help improve the quality of life for people with dementia and make life easier for those close to them.

“Going downhill fast is expensive and unpleasant, and this book gives the information you need if you’re seriously attempting to stay as well as possible for as long as possible,” she says.

She points out that many people with dementia don’t get a proper diagnosis, and if they do, they’re often not given any useful information about how to help themselves.

“This is getting a little better, but it’s a lottery,” she warns.

PRACTICAL MEASURES

As well as emotional support, Prof Andrews recognises that a lot of families affected by dementia may need advice and help with practical issues as well, including home care, choosing care homes and making changes at home.

“It’s difficult telling someone they have dementia, but doctors also need to point people in the right direction – although some even think there’s no point telling them, because there’s nothing they can do.

“Given the right information, families can look after relatives with dementia for a long time, but the problem is when they try to do it without the information they need,” she says.

POSITIVE STEPS

There are many lifestyle changes that can help keep symptoms at bay a little longer, Prof Andrews says, stressing that one of the most important of these is exercise, which appears to protect the brain.

Mental stimulation is also vital for people with dementia, from simply doing crosswords to playing bingo. Other potentially worthwhile approaches include not smoking, only drinking in moderation, eating a healthy diet, taking vitamins, getting good quality sleep and socialising.

Prof Andrews warns that while some medication for Alzheimer’s can temporarily delay the disease process, other treatment is for symptom control and keeping well. There is currently no cure, and if/when the dementia gets to the later stages, and the patient no longer even recognises family and friends, it can be heartbreaking.

But she advises: “You should always assume that they are with you right to the very end.

“They may not be able to communicate with you like they used to, but chances are you’re communicating with them, and they can tell from your touch or your smile or the tone of your voice that you’re there, and they’re safe.”

KEEP YOUR BRAIN ACTIVE

• If you don’t use it, you lose it – keep thinking and doing.

• Meet other people and talk – gossip is good.

• Join a book group and read new things.

• Learn how to do a new dance – exercise helps your brain.

• Bingo, crosswords – whatever hobby you’re most likely to stick with, keep it up.

STAYING AS WELL AS CAN BE

• Exercise – whatever you enjoy, you will be more likely to keep up.

• Hydrate – people who don’t drink enough get confused, and also get infections.

• Socialise – it makes a real difference, so make phone calls or get a pet.

• One glass of red wine or champagne a day is said to work.

• Don’t ever get drunk – it destroys brain cells and you need to conserve them.

• Stop smoking – the sooner the better because the benefits start on day one.

• Make design changes in your house to increase light and avoid falls.

• Eat well – the Mediterranean diet, including fish and fresh veg, is good.

• Sleep well – if you get outside in the day you’ll sleep better at night.

• Don’t worry – stress makes dementia much worse, so try to avoid it.

• Dementia: The One-Stop Guide by Prof June Andrews is published by Profile, priced £9.99. Available now.

• For more information about dementia, visit www.alzheimers.org.uk