I had a very refreshing conversation recently with someone running a care company about the ‘stages’ of dementia. In this person’s view, the way in which the medical model defines dementia by different stages isn’t helpful for a more human understanding of what dementia really is and how it progresses. Unsurprisingly, I agreed.
The stages of dementia are generally defined as follows:
Mild/Early Stage: Characterised by the onset of a range of dementia symptoms – these could be anything from memory loss to confusion. I describe some common dementia symptoms in my blog post ‘What is dementia’. This is generally considered to be the stage at which dementia should be diagnosed.
Moderate/Mid Stage: Symptoms experienced in the mild/early stage are increasingly severe, and changes in behaviour can become more marked and difficult to cope with, both for the person with dementia and those caring for them. If a person is diagnosed at this stage, it’s considered by many medics to be a late diagnosis.
Severe/End Stage: This stage is characterised by further deterioration of previous symptoms, but is particularly marked by physical frailty – for example the person may become immobile, incontinent, have swallowing problems, experience weight loss, be at an increased risk of infections, and have severely limited or non-existent verbal communication.
I’ve actually never been a fan of compartmentalising, which is how I see the concept of stages in dementia. For me it’s fraught with problems for the following reasons:
- No two people experience dementia in the same way, even if they are diagnosed with the same type of dementia (and there are over 100 different types of dementia).
- Dementia is notorious for giving a person good days and bad days, so in the staging model a person could appear to be mid stage one day and more early stage the next day, making staging very unreliable as a concept. This is even more applicable if the person has other conditions, alongside their dementia, which can fluctuate.
- Severe/end stage dementia is often confused with end-of-life, which would be encapsulated within it, but in reality a person could fit into the severe/end stage category for far longer than a few days, weeks or months. Technically my dad would have been severe/end stage for at least 6 years, but in the earlier part of those 6 years his dementia manifested itself in a way that meant he bordered both moderate/mid stage and severe/end stage. This only serves to further highlight the shortcomings of viewing dementia through a rigid staging model.
What is immediately obvious to me is that given the complexity of dementia, referring to stages has the ability to drastically mislead care professionals and families, and could, at worst, affect decisions about care and support that may adversely impact upon the person with dementia. The concept of stages also encourages comparisons to be made about people who technically fit into the same stage, but are in fact completely different in how they are experiencing their dementia and reacting to it, which can only make the minefield of care and support more baffling.
Looking at dementia through the prism of stages destroys concepts like individuality and being person-centred, because it assumes all people who are living with dementia are one homogenous group, which they most definitely are not. I also feel staging has the ability to affect whether a person receives positive care and support throughout their life with dementia – for example, would an individual considered to be in severe/end stage dementia be offered as many positive care and support options as a person in ‘moderate/mid stage’ dementia? They certainly should be, but I suspect that the association of end-of-life with severe/end stage dementia might restrict more positive care and support because the person is seen as being less in need now that they are coming to the end of their life (which as I’ve already pointed out in my dad’s case, can be far from true).
Staging also has the ability to dampen hope, which concerns me greatly. When I talk about hope, I’m not talking about notions of a cure for dementia tomorrow, or unrealistic expectations for a person’s recovery from having significant symptoms of dementia to being back to their pre-diagnosis self. Hope, for me, is about giving families and professionals the drive and determination to make the life of the person with dementia happy, fulfilled and reflective of everything that person enjoys, with a massive emphasis on living in the moment and enjoying the good days.
Mentally that is difficult to align with the stages of dementia, because again, the concepts associated with progressing from one stage to another are inevitably likely to cause those around the person to lose a little hope, perhaps feel deflated, blame themselves for not doing more to keep that person at the previous stage for longer, and enhance the feelings of loss that are very common for families and family carers.
Given the negative connotations regarding the stages of dementia, it’s all the more unsettling that many families I’ve known, both personally and professionally, have been encouraged to become very focused on the stages of dementia, when in reality the juncture that their loved one has reached with their dementia at any given time isn’t what is important. Encouraging families to focus on what is possible, what their loved one can do, and how they can provide optimum care and support is far more helpful.
Perhaps even more worryingly, I’ve known medical staff who use the staging model to justify recommendations or decisions about care that families can often feel compelled to agree with because they’re being told that their loved one has reached a certain stage of their dementia. When my dad was immobile, incontinent and living with dysphagia (swallowing problems – more information here), we met doctors who questioned his quality of life and predicted his imminent demise due to his end stage dementia. Without a family to advocate for what he could do and did enjoy, he would have been compartmentalised in a way that effectively wrote him off as a human being.
I’m not in any way seeking to deny that dementia is characterised by deterioration and is terminal, but I also strongly feel that an antidote to the concept of staging is long overdue. For me, this would simply be:
See each person with dementia as an individual in their own right, and if you must assess them, assess them in the context of the moment in time when you are assessing them, keeping a completely open mind as to what the rest of that day, week, month or year might bring for that person. More than anything the person with dementia needs appropriate care and support, not a misleading label.
Or to put it another way, in the words of Helga Rohra, a lady living with dementia:
“The faces of dementia, rather than the stages of dementia.”
Until next time…