One of the scariest words in the English language is “dementia,” a word derived from the Latin dementare, meaning to make mad or insane. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, affecting almost two-thirds of those diagnosed, and the two terms often are used interchangeably. However, dementia is an umbrella term that describes about 100 diseases that trigger a progressive loss of brain function. Sadly, although research is being done, and some medications are available that can alleviate symptoms for some individuals, there is no cure for dementia, and no effective treatment or cure on a large scale.
Dementia is not a normal part of aging. We all worry about potential memory loss – where did I leave my keys, why can’t I remember names, what did I come into this room to do? Slight lapses in memory are perfectly normal, and often to be expected in our busy lives, with family and jobs, and daily demands for our time and attention. When memory lapses turn into not remembering how to get home, or names of close family members, it’s time to make an appointment with a medical professional to discuss if memory loss has become a problem.
I remember a story my aunt told me, many years ago, about her mother, my grandmother. Grandma had been exhibiting signs of what we now call dementia but, at that time, it was just assumed that she was becoming senile. When she started wandering out at night, my grandfather, reluctantly, found a nursing home for her. It was there that Grandma started complaining to my aunt that “her daughter” never came around, but that a cousin was very faithful in visiting. Fact was that my aunt visited nearly every day; the cousin lived across the country and hadn’t seen Grandma for years. Fortunately, my aunt understood Grandma’s confusion, and remained her loving and caring daughter.
Decades ago, there was little help for families affected by dementia. Today, fortunately, in Northern Virginia, the Insight Memory Care Center supports individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and other memory impairments, their families, caregivers, and the community. Insight is a non-profit adult day health and resource center in Fairfax, which provides specialized care, support, and education about memory impairment. Insight has served Northern Virginia families since 1984, and is the only dementia-specific day center in the D.C. metro area. For those in early stages, Insight offers social engagement programs to maximize capabilities, and provide support for loved ones to adjust to changing family dynamics. Even a brief conversation with Insight staff reveals the depth of their care and concern for families and clients. The wife of an Insight client told me that Insight programs almost literally saved her life by providing guidance and support as the beloved husband she knew for decades faded from family and friends. A lot of tears were shed in that conversation.
Despite growing numbers of dementia diagnoses, the general public is largely unaware about the impact of dementia on society. Dementia often still has a stigma; people aren’t sure about how to relate to someone with the disease, and can be fearful of interaction. With a little knowledge, we can promote a more dementia friendly society, and improve attitudes and understanding of the disease. Families don’t have to face dementia disease alone; help is available. More information about Insight programs is available at www.InsightMCC.org. (Many thanks to Robin McGlothin at Insight, who provided information for this column.)
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at email@example.com.