Alzheimer’s disease: Less Fear, More Understanding

What comes to mind when you think of Alzheimer’s disease? Senility? Maybe a Fate that all of us will face in old age? Or, most likely, I suspect that you avoid thinking about it all together.

FEAR about aging is NORMAL. However, the FEAR that many people have about getting Alzheimer’s disease (AD) or other dementias can be compounded by misunderstandings. As a person of West Indian heritage, I know that in the islands, just as families accept the responsibilities of taking care of loved ones as they age, it is also common to hold the expectation that as one ages, memory loss, confusion, and difficulty thinking are a normal part of getting older.

Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal part of aging. 

Senile was a word used to describe problems with thinking, including memory loss, before we understood Dementia as a disease process. The truth is, not everyone who gets old has these problems. It is true that the risk of being diagnosed with dementia increases as a person ages, but, most people over the age of 65 are living independently in the community. Looking at AD specifically, 1 in 11 individuals between the age of 65 and 85 have AD. Over the age of 85, the statistic rises to 1 in 3 individuals. However, this still means that 2 out of 3 people over the age of 85 are living without AD. So we should not assume that aging goes hand in hand with AD. Start with the facts, so that if you start to start to experience symptoms which will be described in this article, you will first have your DOCTOR rule out any other possible causes. It is normal to sometimes feel overwhelmed and forget to do something, or have difficulty finding the right word. But the difference is that someone with AD has these problems frequently and it is interfering with his or her day to day functioning.

Warning Signs of Alzheimer ’s disease.

  • Short-term memory loss: frequent problems remembering familiar things such as phone numbers and appointments. 

  • Confusion with time or place. Getting lost in your own neighbourhood, or forgetting how you got there.

  • Problems with language: Frequent problems finding the right words, or using incorrect words.

  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks: problems with activities which have become habit, cooking, household tasks, or lifelong hobbies for example.

  • Problems with judgement, calculations or decision making: frequently demonstrates poor judgement (e.g. going outside without a coat in the winter); frequent difficulty paying bills or managing money day to day.

  • Misplacing things: frequent problems finding items. We all misplace items from time to time. The difference is often that the item will be put away in an inappropriate place (e.g. finding your car keys in the freezer).

  • Changes in Mood and Behaviour: Mood swings and sometimes agitation for no apparent reason.

  • Loss of initiative: Loss of motivation to start activities and participate in activities which you previously enjoyed.

  • Changes in Personality: Although with AD, this often happens later in the disease process, some people with AD can act suspicious, withdrawn, or un-cooperative in a way that is different from previous personality.

Alzheimer’s disease is only one type of Dementia.

A lot of people do not understand the relationship between Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Is Alzheimer’s disease worse than Dementia? Or is having Dementia worse than having Alzheimer’s disease? Both are incorrect.

Dementia is the broad category which describes a group of symptoms and AD is just one type of Dementia. These problems including difficulty with memory, language disturbances, inability carrying out motor activities, failure to recognize objects, and problems with decision making and judgement.

Many different types of illnesses which can cause such problems and Alzheimer’s disease is just one of them. There are over 50 different types. Other types of dementias include Vascular Dementia, Frontal Temporal Lobe Dementia, and Lewy Body Dementia.

You can find out more about these types of Dementias on the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada website –

This is important because each of the dementias are different, the order in which the symptoms appear are different and therefore, knowing which type you or a family member have, can help you to build a better plan of care for when the disease progresses.



Vascular Dementia is the second most common type of Dementia and you can prevent it from happening to you! 

It is caused by a lack of oxygen to the cells in the brain. This typically happens because a person suffers from a stroke. If there are several strokes, a person may experience permanent losses in their abilities which start to progress, and therefore be diagnosed with a dementia.

This means that you can protect yourself and decrease your risk of this type of Dementia. Simply follow good heart health guidelines – maintain a healthy weight, no smoking, eat low fat, nutritious foods, and exercise regularly.


The disease is progressive, but it does help to seek a diagnosis.

Maybe you have found yourself thinking: “If there is no cure for AD, I don’t want to even know that I have it”. Although it is true that all dementias are progressive and deteriorating, if you are experiencing symptoms, there are a number of good reasons to go to your family doctor or encourage a loved one to do the same.

First, there are a number of reasons why someone might be experiencing problems such as language difficulties, confusion, or memory loss. Infection, vitamin imbalance, or even medication side effects could lead to temporary problems which could start out looking like a dementia.

Your doctor will want to do a full medical work-up to rule out some of these other possible causes. If you have an infection for example, don’t you want to be treated for it? The first step is to investigate other reasons for the problems you may be having.

AD and other dementias are diagnosed by taking a good history, There is no blood test or x-ray which can say for 100% certain that you have any form of dementia. The doctor will do some tests or refer you to a memory clinic where they will engage you in a number of written and verbal tests.

If you are in fact diagnosed with AD or some other form of Dementia, planning for care needs to start right away. Early diagnosis will allow you to be part of the planning process, and allow members of your family to research care options and set up your needs as well as emotionally prepare them for this difficulty journey. As sad and challenging as it is, it will be even more so, if you and your family do not discuss how to handle increased care needs in the home, added medical appointments, and the difficult decisions they will have to make for you.


If you are diagnosed, there is help and support.

If you or someone you love is diagnosed with Dementia, link with community resources as soon as possible even though you will feel scared and not quite ready to face the information. The advantage is that you will find other people dealing with the same emotional and logistical issues as you are – they can help. Your local Alzheimer Society is a great place to start. As well, if you feel you will need help at home, the Community Care Access Centre (CCAC) in your area can assess your needs, and provide government funded assistance. These and additional resources are suggested below.

If you are living outside of Canada, ask your local hospital or medical clinic to provide you with some information on how you can access resources. As well, if you have access to the internet, you can get support and information from any of the websites listed below.


Alzheimer Society of Canada – educational resources, expert support, link to support groups

Community Care Access Centre – guidance for in home care and application to long term care

Dementia Networks Ontario – educational resources

Community Seniors Mental Health and Addictions Service – listing of Memory Clinics in south central Ontario

Ontario Long Term Care Association – guidance for choosing a nursing home


The more you know about AD and other dementias, the more empowered you will be to discuss with your doctor, any problems you may experience as you age. Remember, most people age well with a good quality of life. If you think that you or someone you love has AD or other type of dementia, you will feel fear. Fear is normal, but knowledge is power.

Michelle Donald is an Occupational Therapist currently working as a Dementia and Mental Health Consultant and Educator. For more information, call (416) 451-1862, or e-mail [email protected]

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