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Causes of dementia in the elderly

Updated on September 10, 2014

My entry into the world of dementia in the elderly - My story of caregiving for my 94 year old Mom, Gertie

By way of introduction, I am Lori, a 53 year old caregiver for my darling Mom, Gertie. I "married" my Mom on April 7, 2007, the day her partner and lover of 65 years (my Dad, Joe) died. During the past 5 years, I've seen a gradual decline in mental status so that's where my knowledge of dementia in the elderly comes from.

Mom and Dad had lived with me in the summer here in my old farmhouse 14 miles outside DC for the past 15 years so, when Dad died and Mom came home, the transition was fairly easy. She was just coming home to stay this time. We spent a raw year or so dealing with the grief of losing Dad. Well, she actually dealt with it better than I did as I was thrown into the world of caregiving so my mind was consumed with a lot of "WHAT" am I doing moments. I chose not to have children, being a caregiver to 6 dogs instead, so I had a lot to learn about how to keep Mom happy (as much as I could) and healthy. In fact, here's an ebook I wrote about Senior Citizen Caregiving 101: Things I Wish I Had Known.

More can be read about my experiences dealing with Mom in my blog Gertie's Galavants: Tales of a Summer with a 91 (not 94) year old.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a physician so the information in this article is just my own personal thoughts. I have, however, researched the information as I deal with my own Mother's mental decline.

Things were status quo until...

...dementia entered our lives.

For those unfamiliar, "dementia" is a term that means a decline in mental function. Dementia might rear its ugly head with loss of memory, personality changes, or impaired reasoning. Dementia though is not synonymous with Alzheimer's. My Mom doesn't have Alzheimer's (thank you Lord for small favors) which is a much more serious diagnosis.

In my Mom's case, the onset of dementia started rather suddenly and not that long ago. We've been living in this world that I sometimes refer to as "la-la land" for about 6 months now. Initially, I took her to the doctor when I started to notice the changes - everything checked out. She was just, well, aging. The doctor informed me that her symptoms were fairly typical in people who had once been totally vibrant and on top of things. Dementia just happens - sort of like sh*t....

Some good resource books on dementia

I've got a few of these on my Amazon wish list. Any books you can find, or information you can glean, read it. Knowledge is power when competing against dementia (or Alzheimer's).

Some causes of dementia in the elderly

I have learned a lot about causes of dementia in the elderly. If the onset is very sudden, there might be underlying issues that you should have checked out by a doctor, asap. Such causes of confusion in the elderly are listed below and will be discussed in more detail further below.

  1. Dehydration
  2. Urinary Tract Infection (UTI). Here's a few articles I wrote about incontinence:

    Dealing with incontinence in the elderly

    Preventing bedsores in the elderly

    Handicap bathroom needs for a senior citizen

  3. New environment
  4. Medications
  5. Strokes or TIA
  6. Nutritional deficiencies. Here's a few articles I wrote about keeping the elderly fed:

    Healthy eating for senior citizens

    Cooking a low sodium diet for the elderly

    A low sodium chicken pot pie recipe, made in muffin tins

  7. Pneumonia. Pneumonia symptoms in the elderly are a lot different than in a younger person. In fact, pneumonia can easily cause confusion in the elderly.

Dehydration

One of the top causes of dementia or confusion in the elderly

As we age, our bodies might not cue us into its needs as it once did. Dehydration, caused by not drinking enough water, is a likely cause of sudden-onset dementia. The elderly should drink at least 8 glasses of water a day.

One problem you might face though in trying to get an elderly person to drink extra water is the need to urinate at night. I push water on Mom up until about 2 pm and then I lay off. By 2 pm, she usually gets at least 6 glasses into her diet and then will sip more leisurely throughout the afternoon. In this fashion, I've helped her rehydrate and she'll excrete most of the water before bedtime.

This might border on too much information but, if you have an elderly person in your household, you might want to invest in a bedside potty...

And, yes, maybe the photo accompanying this module isn't politically correct but she got the brandy after finishing her water!

Portable commodes on Amazon

We've had a beside commode for my Mom for about 3 years now. It not only gives me peace of mind (I don't have to worry about her walking down the hallway to the bathroom), but the convenience for her makes all the difference in her getting a better night sleep.

I highly recommend this option if you're a caregiver for someone with dementia or decreased mobility.

Here's an article I wrote about portable bedside toilets - Bedside Toilet Chairs.

Urinary Tract Infection

A typical cause of dementia in the elderly

Particularly if the dementia or confusion is a quick onset (such as days), get your elderly loved one to a doctor as soon as humanely possible to be checked out for UTI.

UTIs occur as we age, particularly in women, as, well, our plumbing shifts around and it's quite easy to infect ourselves with decreasing bathroom hygiene.

It should be noted that the typical symptoms that accompany a UTi in a younger person (burning on urination, frequent need to urinate, etc) might not appear in the elderly. It's quite possible (and more likely) that an elderly person will report no symptoms of a UTI. It's your job as a caregiver to rule out this cause if dementia or confusion abounds.

You can help your elderly loved one avoid a UTI by 1) asking a doctor for a prophylaxis broad-spectrum antibiotic (such as Bactrim), 2) assisting with bathroom hygiene, or 3) having your elderly friend put on a sanitary pad which is changed throughout the day.

Some people say that cranberry juice, given once a day, will also help with UTIs by changing the pH of the urine. From my younger days, I know this to be true but it works for some women and not necessarily every one. It's worth a try though. Cranberry pills might be another option if your elderly loved one doesn't like the juice.

The photo accompanying this lens is of my Mom and little wee Margarita on our balcony. You can read more about "Rita" in my lens Introducing Golden Margarita - my adopted island girl from St. Croix.

A new environment can easily trigger dementia

Although new surroundings and new routines may delight us while we're young, putting the elderly into new situations can definitely trigger dementia. If you have to move an elderly loved one, take a picture of the room where they spend the most time (ie, the living room) and set up their new surroundings as similar as possibly, down to the photos on the wall. This might help them acclimate to a new environment.

Talk to them about why you're moving them and, after they're moved in, give them a tour of their new surroundings. Make sure to highlight the bathroom facilities. If you're moving a loved one into a nursing home or assisted living, take time to introduce them to a few friendly neighbors.

The photo accompanying this module is of our littlest girl, Gizmo, catching a ride. You can read more about Gizmo by reading my article Gizmo - the dog born to ride.

Tips and Tricks to helping the elderly

I'm always interested in new tips or tricks that my readers may know about caring for the elderly. Please leave me comments.

Do you have a tip or trick to caring for the elderly?

See results

Medications (and their side effects) can cause dementia

if your elderly loved one has a change in medications, and you see an immediate decline in mental function, you've got a pretty good idea of what the cause of the dementia is. Immediately report to the doctor the symptoms and ask if there is a different medication which has less reported adverse events resulting in confusion.

In some cases, medication side effects of confusion may be relieved by adding in another medication to combat the confusion. Sadly, it's a fact of life that most of us, as we age, will have to take medications for something.

Totally off the topic, the photo attached to this module are NOT my Mom's pills! These were all medications for 4 dogs who were going through different problems at the same time. How the heck lucky was I????

These items will help the elderly take their pills on time

I use a large pill container that will hold 7 days worth of pills a day. Each compartment is divided into 4 - breakfast, lunch, dinner, and evening. Since I set up Mom's pills once a week, I have a week's notice when she's running low and can then reorder. With the use of this system, I make sure to give her her pills on time and I never run out.

Strokes or TIAs

If you're not familiar with the term, a TIA is a transient ischemic attack, AKA mini-strokes. TIAs may well be a precursor to a full blown stroke if actions are not taken. TIA symptoms include such things as loss of mobility, temporary blindness, daze, headache, and lack of speech. Generally, TIA symptoms may appear for 1-2 hours (although they can be much shorter). TIAs, unlike full strokes, do not cause death to brain tissue but they can be quite disarming.

If you notice any of the above symptoms, call a doctor and report what you're seeing. It's possible that your elderly loved one has a blood clot which can be dealt with before it dislodges and causes a stroke.

More about TIAs can be found here: TIA information.

The photo accompanying this module is of Mom and Killian, her guard dog. I've trained Killian to assist me in my caregiver duties. To date, he "cleans Gert" (gets any crumbs in her lap), picks any item I ask up and gives it to me or Mom, shuttles the TV remote back and forth between us, puts clothes in the washer (his sorting skills suck), and closes the refrigerator door along with other assorted duties. More can be read about this fabulous adopted dog on my lens How to calm down an Australian Shepherd

My and other caregivers Squidoo articles... - ...and a wonderful blog

I hope these articles will give you some ideas or help if you're a caregiver dealing with the elderly.

Nutritional deficiencies

Just as getting in enough water a day becomes a chore for the elderly, having them eat a nutritious diet can also become quite a struggle - especially since the things they love the most (ie, corn on the cob, salty pretzels, or beef) may be restricted by a doctor.

Getting the elderly excited about eating takes some imagination and will hone your cooking skills - believe me, I know as Mom was placed on a low sodium diet. I've become quite adept at creating some tasty meals with low salt.

Getting back to my point - if the confusion in the elderly is of a fast onset, have your loved one's doctor run a blood panel and check all of the blood's values. It could be something as simple as adding an iron pill to help relieve some of the symptoms.

Vitamins and/or supplements for the elderly

Here's some good nutritional supplements for the elderly. My Mom has an Ensure meal supplement daily. The Ensure Plus is 350 calories and packed with vitamins and minerals.

As with anything, check with your elderly loved one's doctor before starting him or her on vitamins or supplements.

Pneumonia...

...and this illness can be well hidden in the elderly

In the younger population, pneumonia is evidenced by a deep productive cough, perhaps a fever, chills, and difficulty breathing. However, pneumonia in the elderly might be totally asymptomatic, as it was in 94 year old Gert last week.

When Mom first started "losing it" mentally, I took her to her regular doctor who said it was a "normal" part of aging. Well, it might be for some but the doctor didn't delve deeply enough into Mom's case.

Last week, she was fairly unresponsive in the morning - she was sort of alert but much more confused even than previously. A call to 911 and we were off to the hospital and diagnosed with a serious case of right lung aspiration pneumonia. Aspiration pneumonia just means that she had, at some point, aspirated food or drink into her lung - basically, food or drink went down the wrong tube, bacteria grew, and 7 days later, we were released from the hospital and her mind is clear

Mom loves when I tell her people say hello on the internet - Please leave me a comment to read to Gert.

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    • mariacarbonara profile image

      mariacarbonara 4 years ago

      A lot of great information here. Thanks for sharing

    • profile image

      dellgirl 4 years ago

      Thanks for sharing this information, itâs very thorough and so well done! I learned something new.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I was looking on the internet to find some options on how to care for my elderly parents in West Palm Beach, FL. I found a great website with lots of pertinent info. Check it out at www.seniorhomecareadvice.org maybe it can help you too.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Visiting Angels is indeed a blessing. I needed someone to care for my mom who lives in Palm Beach Gardens, FL. She suffers from Alzheimerâs and I live in England. I was able to choose the right caregiver for my Mom. The person was experienced and had excellent credentials. I have peace of mind knowing that Mom is in capable hands. You should check them out at www.visitingangels.com/palmbeaches (561-328-7611) if you need senior care services.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Hi Gertie, Your daughter wrote a lovely story about you and shared a lot of wonderful photographs of you! You are quite a cutie! I really appreciate the information and will be able to use it as my 84 year old mother is showing sudden signs of difficulties - especially a personality change from outgoing and vivacious to withdrawn. Thank you Lori! --Anne

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Hello Lori- You need to add to your cause of dementia- CHEMO BRAIN. The side effect of chemo no one tells you about. Yes there is a price to pay later down the line and that is exactly what happen to my 85 year old dad after 20 years of repetitive chemo treatment, it pickled his brilliant mind. Spread the word it's what the medical field doesn't want you to know since they make billions off pushing it to our cancer patients.....sad story but people need to know!!

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Hello Gert, my mum is called Gertrude, but she hates it, she prefers to be called "Trudy"! My mum is in hospital in Wales uk at the moment with Pneumonia. She is suddenly very confused and angry in hospital. It was lovely to hear that you recovered well from your Pneumonia....it gives me hope. My mum is 84 which is a spring chicken next to you. God bless. Lynette x

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Wonderful lens with lots of very useful information. I want to link yours to mine, if you don't mind. Thanks so much for posting this.

    • Mandy Stradley profile image

      Mandy Stradley 5 years ago

      Thank you!

    • Mandy Stradley profile image

      Mandy Stradley 5 years ago

      Thank you!

    • gottaloveit2 profile image
      Author

      gottaloveit2 5 years ago

      @anonymous: Debbie, those feelings are quite natural for most caregivers. Your life is taken over by someone else and, in a way, you're in an alternate reality. I say "step away" when those bitter feelings come over. Get someone in to help and take a weekend off. Caregiving, for me at least, was the hardest and most rewarding thing I'd ever done but, then again, I was blessed with caring for the best mother in the world.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I am currently caring for both my mother and father. The hardest job I have ever had! It really helps reading about what others are going through. Sometimes I hate myself because I feel so bitter towards my mother and I don't know why.

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 5 years ago from Canada

      I have visited here before but am just fluttering over once again to refresh this wonderful article.

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 5 years ago from Canada

      I have visited here before but am just fluttering over once again to refresh this wonderful article.

    • Rangoon House profile image

      AJ 5 years ago from Australia

      Blessings to you and the memory of both your parents.

    • flicker lm profile image

      flicker lm 5 years ago

      Very helpful article. And your love for your mom shines through.

    • AlexTedford profile image

      AlexTedford 5 years ago

      Great info! *squidliked*

    • profile image

      DJHughes 5 years ago

      Thanks for sharing this great information about dementia. A quality lens!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      What a team you are, hand in hand and heart to heart taking all in stride and stretching out to others. Mom is 85 and showing evidence of dementia right along and in a happy place of her life right now. Excellent and blessed.

    • favored profile image

      Fay Favored 5 years ago from USA

      Hello Miss Gertie. How lovely you are, and blessed by God. Hope you're feeling better soon. Jesus loves you :)

    • David Dove profile image

      David Dove 5 years ago

      Having watched/cared for both my parents through this I admire your courage and humour, and your mother's always laughing face. Smiles make everything better

    • LadyCharlie profile image

      LadyCharlie 5 years ago

      Tell you Mom hello...LOL...and thank you for the wonderful insight and input.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      It's so difficult to watch the elderly get confused. Your article has invaluable information.

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 6 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      I'm so glad to hear your mom is doing better and you're both home. Great information here for others to consider when caring for an elderly person.

    • gottaloveit2 profile image
      Author

      gottaloveit2 6 years ago

      @bossypants: Thanks, Bossy. I figure if I'm living through it, someone else is too and maybe these articles will help. Too bad they're not moneymakers...

    • bossypants profile image

      bossypants 6 years ago from America's Dairyland

      What helpful infromation! Especially useful is the symptom detail to help caregivers understand what to look for. Another very good guide to elder care.

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 6 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      This is valuable information for anyone who has an elderly person in their life. Great job covering the many causes of dementia.

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 6 years ago from Canada

      Another excellent article once again. I am so happy that you write in the aging category and that I get to visit your wonderful lenses. Best wishes.

    • profile image

      lr-duval 6 years ago

      great information. we try to get my grandmother out because if she stays in a lot she gets more confused and also depressed. i also repeat things to her, that seems to help her remember better. and you know how we can tell when she has a uti? she starts having auditory hallucinations

    • profile image

      lr-duval 6 years ago

      great information. we try to get my grandmother out because if she stays in a lot she gets more confused and also depressed. i also repeat things to her, that seems to help her remember better. and you know how we can tell when she has a uti? she starts having auditory hallucinations

    • gottaloveit2 profile image
      Author

      gottaloveit2 6 years ago

      @Virginia Allain: Thanks, Virginia. Although we might know the causes of confusion, there's sometimes nothing we can do to change the situation. Sometimes, the best I can do is just being there and holding her hand - I suppose that's good enough.

    • gottaloveit2 profile image
      Author

      gottaloveit2 6 years ago

      @Joan Haines: Hey there! Thanks for the nice comment, Joan. Come visit - the pool is open as is the hot tub!

    • gottaloveit2 profile image
      Author

      gottaloveit2 6 years ago

      @anonymous: Hey, Phil! Thanks for dropping in and the kind words. Come see us. Much love!

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 6 years ago from Central Florida

      This is really helpful information as too many people are willing to accept confusion from the elderly and not look for possible triggers that could be causing it.

    • Joan Haines profile image

      Joan Haines 6 years ago

      Gert, you and Lori are a wonderful example for the rest of us. I am thinking of you guys down south of me. Don't drink too much of that brandy, and give my favorite little Gizmo a rub between the ears.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Great information for those of us with aging family members. As someone who has gone through 9 years of my aunt's Altzheimers and other experiences, your article provides useful insight and valuable tips. Thanks for taking the time to do this and for being such a loving caregiver to one of the world's finest ladies - sweet Gertie!

    • gottaloveit2 profile image
      Author

      gottaloveit2 6 years ago

      Thanks so much Priscilla. Went to read this to Mom but choked up and she got concerned (told her I swallow wrong) - there are some benefits to dealing with a confused person....if you're creative! I really appreciate the kind words though.

    • priscillab profile image

      priscillab 6 years ago

      Gert- You did one helluva job in raising your daughter. You are blessed to have someone who not only cares for you so well but shares the story of what it is like to help others. Aging is inevitable...your tips and lessons you have learned (and are learning) are helpful to others. Thanks.