Dementia & Palliative Care

Dementia is a deterioration of the brain. Although the disease progresses slowly, it finally causes the brain to stop working. Families caring for a loved one with dementia need a lot of support and assistance, and getting palliative care early is important.

Palliative care is as much about helping the family as it is about treating the patient. Palliative care teams are a very valuable resource for family caregivers, who often face terrible stress on a 24/7 basis. This is because a patient’s fading memory is gradually joined by the loss of hand-eye coordination, motor skills and the ability to dress and bathe. Patients begin to not recognize hunger and thirst, and lose the ability to feed themselves and the ability to eat.

Unless clear medical directions have been set up at the earliest stages of dementia, families and caregivers often must face heartbreaking decisions when a patient can no longer eat. Frequently they must decide whether artificial feeding (through a tube to the stomach or through a vein) is called for. Unfortunately, medical research shows that neither feeding method actually works to prolong life. They might even cause more lung infections and pneumonia.

Another challenge for caregivers is that dementia is sometimes hard to see because it progresses slowly. This is made even harder because family members tend to get used to the slowly worsening “new normal.” Without even realizing it, they begin to do more and more, and they become exhausted. Statistics show that people who are taking care of loved ones with dementia have a much higher risk of getting sick themselves—even dying—as compared with those not offering such care.

Again, here’s where palliative care is so important. The team can help with in-depth communication and support. They can also arrange for paid caregivers to help in the home. If home care is no longer possible, the team will see to it that a patient gets care in a skilled nursing facility. And team members are all highly trained in helping patients and families alike deal with the complex health care system.