I recently met a friend that I'd grown up, but who I hadn't seen in years. On catching up with her family news she informed me that her mother, who I remembered as having been an outgoing and lively woman, one of the stalwarts of our village, had passed away in a nursing home when she was 76, having developed Alzheimer's (dementia) at the age of 65.
She remarked that the whole process for the family was the most difficult time of their lives. Watching someone they loved change from being a bright sharp individual who relished going on family outings and engaging in village gossip, to being a person who couldn't remember who they were and was unable to hold a conversation as she couldn't find the words to express what she wanted to say.
This led to her having bouts of anger, aggression and depression. From being a woman who loved to dress up and who never went out without her make up on, to not being able to dress herself.
But the thing that made it far worse for the family, my friend said, was the lack of any insight they had into her deterioration. How, due to lack of knowledge, they'd failed to recognise the signs of impending Alzheimer's until it was too late.
Frustration with her in the initial period after she started losing things such as keys, her purse and clothing items, and blaming the family members for taking them, led to frequent arguments amongst themselves. This resulted in profound guilt when they eventually found out it wasn't her fault.
It was when she was found by a neighbour wandering down the village street as she was unable to find her way home that they realised something serious was going on.
When she eventually went in to long-term care in the nursing home, they were very pleasantly surprised at how much their quality of life with her improved, as they were able to enjoy what time they had left with her, knowing that she was being well looked after.
More recently, another friend told me that he'd read an article in a paper along the lines that people were now becoming as afraid of developing Alzheimer's as they were of getting cancer.
I doubted the veracity of that but, in fact, studies have shown that there is a very credible body of evidence out there to support the claim.
Dementia is a collection of symptoms including memory loss, personality change, and impaired intellectual functions resulting from disease or trauma to the brain.
These changes are not part of normal aging and are severe enough to impact daily living, independence, and relationships.
While Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia (approximately 75pc) there are also many other forms, including vascular and Lewy body.
With dementia, there will likely be noticeable decline in communication, learning, remembering, and problem solving. These changes may occur quickly or very slowly over time.
According to the Alzheimer's Association of Ireland, in the early stages of dementia the person tends to: forget things easily, repeat things frequently, experience problems with language, such as appearing to be stuck for words or losing track of a conversation.
They may find new situations or places confusing, show poor judgement or find it hard to make decisions, lose interest in other people or activities, be unwilling to try new things, experience low mood, may become anxious or withdrawn, and feel frustrated or angry.
According to the report 'Creating Excellence in Dementia Care' (2012) there are about 41,740 people with dementia in Ireland, of whom 26,000 live at home. An estimated 3,583 (approximately 8.6pc of all people with dementia) have early onset.
Approximately 4,000 new cases of dementia arise in the general Irish population every year and the incidence of dementia is higher than cancer and heart disease, with numbers expected to more than treble over the next 30 years. Age-standardised prevalence for those aged >60 years is five per cent to seven per cent in most world regions.
The report estimates the overall cost of dementia in Ireland to be just over €1.69 billion a year, 48pc of which is attributable to informal care provided by family and friends to those living with dementia in the community. A further 43pc is accounted for by residential long-stay care, while other formal health and social care services contribute only nine per cent to the total costs of dementia.
Consistent with per capita estimates from other countries, the average cost per person with dementia in Ireland is estimated at €40,500.
The most important thing for anyone who either suspects or knows that a person may be developing dementia is to seek help and guidance. No one person or family should try to cope alone.
Health care professionals have put a lot of work into developing ways of dealing with memory loss and other issues that people with dementia experience.
The Alzheimer Society of Ireland: www.alzheimer.ie