Anxiety is commonly mentioned as one of a raft of symptoms linked to the development and progression of dementia. It is thought that dementia can both exacerbate anxiety in those who have a history of being anxious, and also bring about anxiety in people who were previously never known to be anxious. In short, anxiety and dementia are often inextricably linked.
What interests me when thinking about anxiety and dementia is how the actions of those individuals around a person with dementia may, or may not, contribute to the promotion of anxiety in the person who is living with dementia. In my opinion, a common mistake when thinking about the manifestation of many symptoms of dementia is that they all exclusively originate as a result of the damage that the person’s brain is going through, when other factors could also contribute or at very least enhance many symptoms of dementia.
As I’m not a scientist, I’m not about to align this theory with findings from some extensive research study I’ve undertaken. My viewpoints are based on personal experiences with my dad and other people who are living with dementia, observations made in my personal and professional life, and good old fashioned common sense, which I often feel is severely lacking in much of what is thought and taught in relation to dementia.
The difficulty with anxiety is that it has a tendency to set in motion a snowball effect. Very early on, when family members start to notice changes in their loved one, they may well become anxious. The mind has a habit of fast-forwarding to worst case scenarios at the onset of any type of health-related concern that could have long term, irreparable consequences. Anxiety can be difficult to hide, even at this juncture, and could therefore affect the person who may, or may not, be developing dementia.
Meanwhile, if the person who is potentially developing dementia picks up on either their family’s anxiety, or begins to feel their own anxiety at disconcerting events – like forgetting names, the location of places or objects, dates and times, or struggling to maintain their daily routine – then anxiety is already doing its unpleasant work and putting everyone on edge.
Some people cope with anxiety by trying to prove that they can do what is making them anxious, which for a person with dementia may only make them more anxious and prone to what they might feel is ‘making a mistake’. Other people cope by hiding away from what is making them anxious, which can result in not participating in things that they normally would participate in which is then seen as withdrawal, another symptom of dementia.
In almost any scenario related to anxiety and dementia, there is also the possibility for elements of depression to set in, which again are very counterproductive. Bringing all this together into the diagnostic process for dementia can result in a fairly gloomy prediction of what post-diagnostic life is likely to entail. This is perhaps best summed up by Kate Swaffer, a lady living with dementia, who has trademarked the term ‘Prescribed Disengagement’. Anyone receiving that type of ‘treatment’ is bound to feel lots of negative emotions, including anxiety.
Anxiety isn’t just linked to our mental processes either. It can manifest itself in many unpleasant physical ways, like loss of appetite, nausea, stomach pains, diarrhoea or vomiting, and through outbreaks of spots, itchy or sweaty skin, headaches, shortness of breath and exacerbation of a wide range of pre-existing conditions. Quite a few of these physical signs can also go towards contributing to a fairly negative assessment of a person’s prognosis in relation to dementia.
Even if anxiety doesn’t bite as a person is developing dementia, it may strike later on, in fact anxiety is often seen as a contributing factor to ‘challenging behaviour’, or as I prefer to describe it, unmet needs. My dad had problems with anxiety during periods in hospital, an environment that heightened his confusion and made him naturally anxious. Equally, in one my dad’s care homes, I distinctly remember a lady who had days of pacing the corridors looking exceptionally anxious and believing she had killed somebody.
The problem with anxiety, whether you have dementia or not, is that it is rarely rational. Add in the unpredictability of dementia and it makes anxiety much more difficult to cope with. If people around the person with dementia are also anxious, that only makes matters worse. So for example, individuals around a person with dementia might:
- Be unsure of how to speak to the person or react to something that they are saying – see my blog post ‘Talking the talk’ for some help and advice.
- Be fearful of what a person with dementia might do – this goes back to the way in which ‘challenging behaviour’ is viewed. See my blog post ‘Fear factor’for an exploration of fear and dementia.
- Feel out of their depth or overwhelmed at the prospect of caring for or supporting a person with dementia – this is where training becomes so important
If you’re experiencing any of these feelings or situations, then any anxiety you’re going through is likely to be pretty transparent and therefore obvious to the person with dementia. It’s completely wrong to assume that just because a person’s dementia may have advanced to a point where there are significant problems with communication, or communication is non-existent, that the person with dementia doesn’t pick up on the words, actions, emotions and feelings of those around them – my belief is that the ability to sense how others are feeling remains with a person until the end of their life.
Helping a person with dementia to feel less anxious is about calm reassurance, and putting your feelings to one side in order to focus on the person with dementia, their needs, and how you can best support them. This will never be achieved if you’re an anxious wreck. If you are a person who feels out of their depth through lack of knowledge, ensure you plug those gaps through whatever means are available to you.
If your anxiety is rooted more in fearfulness of what the person with dementia might do, coping with this is about trying to understand the world from the perspective of the person with dementia. What is happening around them, either with other people or the environment, that could affect how they react, and what could you do to make them feel more reassured?
If you’re a family member who is unwittingly projecting your anxiety about the future onto your loved one, take a step back and look at whether this is helpful for either of you. Your own health will undoubtedly suffer as a result of this type of anxiety, and I’ve already covered how negatively it may affect your loved one.
Without wishing to in any way hide from the realities of how dementia progresses, I think it’s important to remember to live in the moment, focus on what you have in that moment and any changes, however small or apparently insignificant, that you could make to enhance that moment. This is positive action that should help to relieve both your own anxiety and any anxiety the person with dementia has either picked up from you or is feeling independently of you.
Sadly there is no magic solution to anxiety in dementia care, but empathy, compassion, positivity, and being both person-centred in your approach and living in the moment are ways in which temporary and sometimes permanent relief can be found for all concerned.
Until next time…