While everybody’s experience with dementia is unique, one certainty is that it is a progressive condition, and people with dementia will deteriorate. Sometimes this process takes just months, while in other cases it can take many years, and even decades.
We can broadly describe three stages of dementia: early stage, mid stage and late stage. Because there are several types of dementia – each with their own symptoms and treatments – it’s not possible to cover each of these stages in a way that applies to every person with dementia.
It’s also impossible to say how long each of these stages will last. For example, the average amount of time a person lives following an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis is somewhere around six or eight years, however some people may live for up to 20 years following diagnosis.
Everybody’s experience with dementia will differ. There will be good days and bad days; good hours and bad hours.
1 – Early stage dementia
It’s common for the onset of dementia to be recognised only in hindsight, as symptoms slowly emerge. The fact that some symptoms can also be a natural part of ageing (such as slower movement and occasional forgetfulness) can make early diagnosis even trickier.
When two or more of the common symptoms of dementia occur with some frequency, it’s time to check in with your GP. Early-stage dementia can be confronting, as the person with the condition and their loved ones need to begin planning for the future.
At the same time, most people with early-stage dementia can continue living as they have always done, keeping active, continuing with hobbies, and getting out to the shops and to see friends and family.
2 – Mid stage dementia
This stage, which typically lasts for about four years but can vary widely, sees more pronounced cognitive decline. Memory loss – especially short-term memory – increased confusion and problems with communication become much more noticeable. It’s also an emotionally challenging time: the person with dementia can feel agitated, isolated and angry, while loved ones face the challenge of sometimes not being recognised and seeing a person they love exhibit challenging behaviours.
In many cases, medication is a valuable tool in reducing some of the symptoms, and there will still be opportunities for outings (with supervision), conversations and emotional connection.
3 – Late stage dementia
Whether the decline has been over months or years, late-stage dementia is the time when the person with dementia needs permanent full-time care. Social faculties such as speaking will decline further, movement will be severely hampered, and the ability to perform simple tasks will reduce.
While aggression is common at this point, people with dementia still have the ability to hear others and can respond emotionally. As the disease progresses the person will become increasingly reliant on the care provided by their family and health professionals, both emotionally and physically.
While it’s a terribly sad time for loved ones, it’s also an opportunity to sit together and reflect on a lifetime of experiences and memories.