How Dementia Is Very Much Like Being a Child Again

Dementia is something that has come to my attention more recently after my grandmother was diagnosed with Vascular Dementia a few months back now, although it was ongoing from November last year.

Before this, all I knew about Dementia was that it caused memory loss, however, from experience I’ve now come to realise unsurprisingly that it is much more than just memory loss.

Described by The Alzheimer’s Society, Dementia is “a set of symptoms that may include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language.” Dementia is caused when the brain is damaged by diseases, one being Alzheimer’s which is also the most common cause.

After a lot of debating, I decided to explore the idea that Dementia shares similarities with childhood. To back this up further, I’ve gone ahead and done some research which has included speaking with people who’d witnessed a relative suffer from Dementia, their names shall remain anonymous.

“The most obvious deterioration is the repetitiveness along with behavioural changes e.g being the bubbliest and nicest person to being snappy and aggressive.”

Once a person is diagnosed with Dementia, it’s clear that their brain is damaged. They no longer think or live like they once did, because nothing is the same as it was in their minds.

“There were times when she forgot who my brother and I were by appearance. I remember when she was in hospital, and most of the family were around her. She started talking about my grandpa like he wasn’t in the room.”

“He was always so lively and fun, always had stories to tell and places to go, but then he just lost interest in everything. He became severely depressed because he was having gaps in his memory.”

Their world is completely different to ours, they’re filled with fear and confusion. Like a child’s mind, imagination is thrown in to the mix and so creates irrational fears e.g a person I spoke with said that their family member was “convinced there was a red indian pointing his arrow at him and he was terrified of it, although one of his stories involved a red indian when my mum and her sister were kids so we assumed it all traced back to a memory sort of”.

From working with children myself, I have noticed the way you treat a 4 year old’s story is very similar to how you treat a relative or friend with dementia. The damaged parts of the brain tell all kinds of stories that are most of the time, untrue.

Children will tell us that they are a superhero or that they have an imaginary friend, but the thing is we never try to tell them they’re wrong because we know it’s their imagination working. A child I’ve worked with in the school I work in likes to believe he has a baby growing in his tummy and again, it’s never something that we as TA’s dispute.

It is the exact same when conversing with a person who has Dementia. The best thing to do is to go along with their stories and answer questions accordingly rather than being truthful and possibly confusing or upsetting them.

Dementia strips them of any independence that they once had. They now need to be reminded to eat and drink, they need help being washed or going to the toilet, and so it is very much like being a child all over again.

They need constant reassurance and to be comforted, especially when they get confused, upset and even panicked.

“It was very slight at first, repeating a conversation or asking the same question a couple times throughout the visit. One weekend,s she caught a bus into town, got off in the city centre and completely forgot where she was. Eventually it progressed that she was unable to cook herself meals.”

Of course the memory loss contributes as a factor as they forget where they are and therefore feel scared and no longer safe.

Whilst my Grandma was in hospital, there was a very lovely but clearly very unwell patient who’d walk around the ward searching for different things such as her mum and dad. She told me a couple of times that there were people outside her room and she’d constantly ask “where am I going?”, bless her heart, she’d also tell anyone who helped her “I love you so much”, just like a very young child. She’d also think that there were people in her bed or outside her window.

“He was very depressed, but mostly I think the hallucinations were the most child like thing about his behaviour.”

Coming back to the comparisons, children get these irrational fears too e.g a monster under the bed or that harm will come because they’re sleeping in the dark.

“I remember when I visited my Grandma in hospital she would scream as like a shout for help because she didn’t know what was going on, but I can’t think of many childlike behaviours.”

They become frustrated when they can no longer do simple tasks such as opening a packaged item of food, and children likewise are easily disheartened when they struggle to do something simple such as learning to ride a bike.

“If you told him to do something he’d do the opposite or complain that he didn’t want to. He’d wet the bed then sit and cry about it rather than asking for help or cleaning it up.”

“There are little things I’ve picked up on like being cheeky and giggling. Taking random objects also and finding them in random places like a child would randomly leave behind. The anxiety is definitely present as she panics about the smallest things.”

“She would make make inappropriate comments. Be nosy and listen to other people conversation and then repeat what they were saying to you. Poke her tongue out and say ‘nuh nuh’. No filter with hurtful/truthful comments like if someone was a mess didn’t like someone clothing. Have stroppy moments. Go wandering off. Problematic eating spitting food out refusing to eat.”

Dementia truly is an awful thing to watch somebody go through and my family and I are only at the first stages. Despite it being a “common”, if that’s the right word, illness it’s not easy to witness and it’s okay to reach out for help or support.

National Dementia Helpline – 0300 222 11 22

Thank you very very very much to the lovely people who got in touch, and discussed a very difficult topic with me.

Ciao for now x

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Wellbeing writer, host for The Inspired Narrative podcast and mental health support worker.