We talk A LOT in dementia care about how dementia changes a person. Often it’s distilled down into very negative language, and bracketed as ‘challenging behaviour’ (a phrase I dislike immensely). Yet, the spectrum of change is immense, very personal to each individual, and definitely worthy of far greater exploration and understanding.
Part of the reason that I think so many people struggle with the personality changes associated with dementia is you can’t ‘see’ them in the way you can see a physical problem. Whilst physical changes can be very distressing – for example if a person becomes immobile, loses weight, loses teeth, wears a catheter or needs help to eat – we associate that type of change with a need to care for that person, helping to minimise any discomfort and keep them as well as possible.
Personality changes in the general discourse of life are bracketed under the ‘mental health’ banner, and as such have an additional stigma attached to them, before you even add in dementia as a factor. We also make a lot of assumptions when associating personality changes with dementia, most notably:
- That the person with dementia has never experienced this type of change before. Are we really sure that in their whole life course to this point that they haven’t had times when they’ve been emotional, depressed or angry? They may have concealed these feelings from others, even people very close to them. The difference may be that now they’ve developed dementia, they find it harder to conceal these elements of their personality.
- That every person who develops dementia was a ‘nice’ person before they developed dementia. It may be unpalatable to admit it but we are all different, and some people just don’t get on with other people of contrasting personalities no matter how much we might want them too – be they other residents in a care home, health and social care staff or even their own family. That, as they say, is life.
Personality changes can be temporary or permanent for a person with dementia, depending upon the damage to the person’s brain (for example a stroke may mean an instant change for a person), the type of dementia they have (for example people with a form of frontotemporal dementia may have more pronounced personality changes), and other factors such as who is around the person (the company of some individuals may trigger different reactions), their environment, other health conditions, side-effects of medications, and even issues like changes in the seasons (increased darkness in winter for example) or memories of certain times of the year, events, people or places.
Personality changes encompass as many differences as you can imagine. Examples include:
- A previously relaxed person becoming very anxious or angry (or vice-versa).
- A previously more detached person becoming much more emotional (or vice-versa).
- A previously tough person becoming a lot ‘softer’ and showing their feelings more (or vice-versa) – This was true for my dad.
- A previously private person becoming more of an exhibitionist (or vice-versa).
- A previously tolerant person becoming intolerant (or vice-versa).
You may recognise someone you love, or yourself, as having undergone such a change, even a more subtle one, as a result of developing dementia. What I think those of us without dementia, and particularly family carers and health and social care professionals, need to understand is that:
- Change is ok, even changes that we perceive as difficult. The more we worry, try to correct, mourn and yearn for the person ‘as they were’ the harder we make it for the person with dementia and ourselves. Adjustment is hard, I know that only too well, but failure to adjust is harder still.
- If we can adapt our approach and interactions with the person, we have the ability to offer the mental equivalent of what I wrote about above in relation to physical changes, namely to; “Care for that person, helping to minimise any discomfort and keep them as well as possible”. Examples of how to do this are through person-centred care, life-story work, reablement, occupation, sensory therapies (including touch), making spiritual connections, music, our approach to personal care, and even by something as simple as modifying the way we communicate.
- Don’t automatically view medication as the answer – often the first resort for any ‘negative’ personality changes is to assume that the person is depressed and put them onto anti-depressants. Medication may be suitable in a few situations, but generally the answer is greater understanding, care and support on the part of those around the person. Again, it goes back to the points about adjustment and adaptation.
Every day can, and often is, very different. Sometimes the changes in a person’s personality may be more, or less, pronounced. If they become less pronounced, you may feel like the person is ‘returning to their old self’, only to see the ‘reversal’ of that the next day, week or month. It can seem cruel, and is a fertile breeding ground for the ‘blame game’, where the person with dementia, or a carer or family member, feels such changes very personally. If changes can be linked to a particular aspect of the person’s life, then mitigating against that trigger could obviously be very beneficial, but sometimes there is no apparent ‘reason’ apart from the unpredictability of dementia.
During my dad’s latter years with dementia I saw him cry more than I had in all of the years prior to that. I saw anger and anxiety too, which I wouldn’t have associated with my dad prior to his dementia. With the power of hindsight, however, I can also see reasons for these differences in him, ways in which I, and others, may have contributed to them, not to mention environments like hospitals and care homes, and some medication he was given.
That’s not to in any way exclude how vascular dementia affected my dad’s brain – so much of what he experienced was, from the perspective of the physical changes in his brain, beyond our control. Coming to terms with that, whilst trying to provide the very best care and support you can, is a balancing act that is as fine as any personality change can be.
Until next time…