While waiting for a flight, I scanned The Times of London. The sidebar on page 14 read: “Dementia kills man, 40.” I was immediately troubled by how we continue to report dementia as a disease. Dementia is a general term for decline in mental abilities. Dementia happens because there is a brain injury or illness. The person mentioned as “one of the youngest reported to die from dementia,” had damage in his frontal and/or temporal lobes of the brain. That damage had caused the dementia, named “Frontotemporal dementia.”
Maybe it’s because I’m in the field of aging and family caregiving that I want us to have a better understanding of diseases that cause life-altering dementia. I wish that more people understood these diseases, especially as we’re seeing more cases in younger people.
Young Onset Alzheimer’s Disease (or YOAD) is often misdiagnosed as depression or simply “change of life” issues for women. I interviewed a man on my radio show who struggled for years to get an accurate diagnosis. He started noticing changes in his mental capacity at age 39 and his doctors came to the same conclusion: he suffered from stress.
I personally know people with YOAD and it is incredibly difficult to be in public with them. We simply aren’t trained in how to respond to older adults with Alzheimer’s disease and we’re even less prepared to handle awkward conversations with younger people who have YOAD. I remember being in a fabric store with a friend who has YOAD. Someone approached her and said, “I love your jacket; where did you get it?” That was too much information thrown at her far too quickly. She couldn’t answer. I put my arm around her and said, “I remember when you got this jacket, but I can’t remember where you got it.” (My friend shook her head in agreement.) I know it’s your favorite.” (And she again agreed with a smile.) The inquiring stranger accepted that answer.
When you suspect someone is struggling to communicate or if you know someone has YOAD, be extra kind, but don’t treat him or her like a child. If they can’t verbalize, help them out in the most supportive way you know how.