Dangers of ignoring dementia

An elderly man experiences symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer's
Headshot of Tim Wholf

By Tim Wholf

November is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, a time to heighten awareness about Alzheimer’s disease and show support for the more than 6.2 million Americans living with it.

Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in this country. An estimated five million Americans have the disease and one family in three is touched by it. Yet Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementia very rarely appears in obituaries or even on death certificates. The disease, experts say, is one of the few that still carries such a stigma that families and patients often refuse to acknowledge it or call it by a name.

As a consequence, some people with dementia have been put in dangerous situations. They are allowed to live alone, for example, when they can no longer cook or care for themselves.

Families have been torn apart when some members refuse to accept a diagnosis in a parent, or help with their care. It may feel better to overlook problems and hurtful situations to protect emotions and decrease a fear about the future. But is it better to deny the existence of dementia in a loved one?

It can be difficult to accept that your aging loved one may be experiencing early signs of dementia. It’s human to reject what we find unpleasant or frightening but denying signs of memory impairment can be dangerous to both caregivers and their aging loved ones.

It is important to understand how dangerous the denial of dementia can be and to learn ways to keep everyone safe and connected through the difficulties of a dementia diagnosis.

Denial is a normal human emotion, especially with symptoms as heartbreaking as dementia or Alzheimer’s, as no one wants to confront the disease for which there is currently no cure. Denial is a tool. It protects us. But if we stay in denial, it becomes a problem. People try to hide their problems. If both the individual and their loved ones ignore changes in behavior, even if they are subtle, this can lead to problems.

An Alzheimer’s or dementia patient only has a small window of being objective. If they can confront the problems they’re experiencing in a timely manner, they can participate in decisions that involve their care and finances.

When loved ones suddenly start acting in a different way, it is easy for us to brush it off as a one-time thing or something that is not so serious. However, if the behavior continues and we consistently keep brushing it off, that denial can become dangerous. Ignoring the problem in the hope it will go away can worsen your loved one’s chance for helpful treatment. There are more benefits from treatments if they’re started in the early stages of the disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, catching neurocognitive diseases early can benefit individuals by:

  • Helping potentially hold off the disease progression for as long as possible .
  • Giving individuals with dementia the chance to participate in research and studies.
  • Allowing families and individuals the opportunity to make plans for the future.

Many experts and doctors agree that diagnosing dementia early on helps improve quality of life and has social benefits for family members, caregivers and the person with dementia.

The Risks

On the flip side, there are many dangers to denying that your loved one (or you personally) have dementia. While it’s normal to not want to accept a diagnosis, here are just a few of the associated risks:

  • Mismanagement of medication.
  • Avoidable accidents.
  • Family conflicts.
  • Delaying much-needed help.
  • Missing opportunities to nurture relationships.
  • Financial repercussions.
  • Not getting affairs in order.
  • Poorer health for caregivers.

It’s hard to accept that things have changed and that our loved ones are headed down a path that’s unchangeable. However, recognizing and acknowledging the reality – that your loved one has dementia – can help you appropriately work through your emotions and move forward to provide the best care and quality of life possible.

If you believe your loved one (or yourself) is showing signs of cognitive impairment, consult with their primary care physician for possible tests and diagnosis. If additional resources are needed, contact Aging and Human Services at 913-715-8861.

Tim Wholf is director of the Johnson County Department of Aging and Human Services.