Dementia and stigma

I have included a section on stigma because Mum herself had a very stigmatized view of dementia and it definitely prevented her from acknowledging her symptoms and obtaining the help we all needed.

The Oxford dictionary definition of stigma is ‘a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person’. The Collins dictionary states ‘If something has a stigma attached to it, people think it is something to be ashamed of’. It’s hard to believe that these statements could apply to people living with dementia but there is still a great deal of stigma surrounding the disease and many people often feel ashamed of their diagnosis (including Mum).

There are many reasons why dementia is still so stigmatized, from a lack of public awareness and low levels of understanding through to fear. Most of us fear dementia. And the brutal truth is, that we fear dementia because the public perception is that people with dementia end up as ‘empty shells’, unable to recognize anyone and completely dependent on others for all aspects of daily living.

There is no doubt that dementia is a horrible disease that strips away memories, not only memories of loved ones, of a life lived but it also takes our memory of how to do things. Eventually it takes away the ability to live independently or communicate effectively.

However , throughout Mum’s illness I have come to understand that while someone in the later stages of dementia will need help with most aspects of daily living, if the relevant understanding, care and support is in place, they can still do some things for themselves, still participate in the things they enjoy, still maintain their dignity.

Why is there still a stigma surrounding dementia?

The stigma of dementia is a self perpetuating problem. Nobody wants to discuss the reality of the later stages of the disease because they fear it. However if we don’t discuss it, we will never improve people’s understanding of what can be done to help and support people to live as well as they can with dementia. We will never remove the fear or the stigma.

So below is my view on some of the reasons why there is still such a stigma associated with dementia.

The association of mental illness and lunatic asylums – The stigma attached to dementia also applies to all types of mental illnesses. Until fairly recently ‘lunatic asylums’ were commonplace and they were where people with any type of mental illness, including dementia, went if they needed care. The image that lunatic asylums create is one of people in straight-jackets, electric shock treatments and other barbaric practices. So while thankfully these places no longer exist, to Mum’s generation, they were the only places available to people with mental health issues and they still remain very vivid in their imaginations.

Negative terminology – Until recently, many of the symptoms of dementia and the associated behaviours were described in negative terms.

Words such as ‘wandering’ used to describe someone who does a lot of walking suggests ‘aimless / thoughtless wandering’ and can add to the stigmatized view that people with dementia have no purpose. The term ‘challenging behaviours’ used to describe behaviours such as aggression or restlessness adds to the stigmatized view that people with dementia are often difficult and unreasonable.

Thankfully things are starting to change and people are encouraged to simply say ‘walking about’ and ‘changes in behaviour’ in a step to reduce stigma.

Behavioural changes –  People with dementia can sometimes become aggressive, argumentative or difficult, even though it was never in their nature to do so before they became ill. Because someone with dementia is no longer able to apply rational thought, any out of character behaviour becomes more difficult to resolve, making people uncomfortable and/or embarrassed.

However, try and remember that there is nearly always a reason behind changes in behaviour, such as fear, embarrassment, pain or hunger, a reason that they are no longer able to communicate, causing frustration. Try and get to the root cause of the problem and look out for common triggers that may help you understand what is wrong. Avoid confrontation and if necessary use distraction techniques.

Memory Loss –  Most people associate memory loss as one of the main features of dementia and forgetting our loved ones is probably one of the things about dementia that we fear the most. Together with the fear that if we forget them, they will stop visiting, hiding behind the ‘what’s the point if they don’t even recognize me’ excuse.

Although Mum often forgot my name and our relationship to each other, I always felt that she recognised me as someone she knew and loved. I learnt not to get too hung up on what she called me but instead cherished the lovely smile I used to get on arrival.

So if you remain a constant presence in your loved ones life, you may find that one of the things you fear the most…never happens.

Communication – People with dementia struggle to communicate as the disease progresses. Some have fluent speech but without meaning while others have little or no speech.

The struggle to communicate leads to the perception that people with dementia have nothing meaningful to say. As a result people with dementia are often dismissed, ignored or overlooked. This can lead to a loss of confidence and reduced well being, making them more likely to withdraw from social interaction, perpetuating the ‘empty shell’ perception.

But in my experience, people with dementia still have thoughts and opinions and we must find ways to help them express themselves. Never talk over or through someone as though they are not there and don’t be embarrassed if you are holding a conversation which makes no sense. Like everyone, people with dementia like to talk and feel as though they are been listened to.

Vulnerability – As dementia progresses people start to need more help with the tasks of daily living. As a result they lose control of the most basic life choices, such as what to eat and when.

This is another aspect of dementia that people fear, that they will become completely reliant on others. They fear that people may take advantage, or worse still, that they may be mistreated. Personally Mum’s vulnerability was one of the things that scared me the most, that she would be mistreated and wouldn’t be able to stand up for herself or raise the alarm.

But the only way to reduce the risk of this happening is to raise awareness so people can better understand the symptoms of dementia and how to manage them.

Personal hygiene – People living with dementia do find it more and more difficult to maintain their personal hygiene. This can lead to people looking more unkempt than usual, which some people find uncomfortable and adds to the stigma that people with dementia no longer care about their appearance.

But it’s not necessarily that they no longer care. There are many reasons why personal hygiene becomes more difficult, including a lack of awareness of the last time they took a bath (or the need to) through to being unable to get into/out of the bath. It is also likely that they will need help with bathing which can cause embarrassment.

Raising awareness about the difficulties of personal hygiene for someone living with dementia is crucial, so allowances can be made, relieving pressure on both the person living with dementia and their carers.

Toileting – It is inevitable that people in the later stages of dementia will need help with toileting and in the very advanced stages, when mobility becomes a problem, disposable underwear is sometimes used as a precaution against accidents.

I remember once Mum needed the toilet and I asked a member of staff in the care home where she lived to help me take her to the bathroom, to which he replied “there is no need, she is wearing …” I stopped him mid sentence and after giving him a piece of my mind I made him help me take Mum to the bathroom. I was livid that day because in my experience, even in the advanced stages, people would still prefer to use the toilet albeit with support. And sadly when people aren’t given assistance and accidents happen, it is often not the fault of the person with dementia, even though they are the ones who have to live with the stigma.

The impact of stigma

The stigma of dementia is significant not only to those living with dementia but also their families. Stigma also makes us all fear dementia more than any other disease.

Below is how stigma impacts on those living with dementia:

  • Stigma stops people from acknowledging their symptoms.
  • Makes people more reluctant to obtain an early diagnosis (or any diagnosis at all).
  • Without a diagnosis it limits access to available treatments.
  • Stops people from obtaining the help and support they need.
  • Prevents planning for the future, including where they would like to live in the later stages of the disease.
  • Stops people from participating in clinical trials, needed to improve the lives of those living with dementia and ultimately find a cure.
  • Results in a loss of friendships / changes in relationships.
  • Causes a loss of confidence and reduced well being.

Stigma by association

When stigma affects the families of those living with dementia, particularly the primary caregiver, it is known as stigma by association.

Examples of stigma by association that family caregivers may experience include:

  • Embarrassment – Family and friends may find it difficult to deal with some of the more challenging symptoms of dementia such as aggressive behaviour or incontinence.
  • Isolation – This can lead to isolation as carers also become excluded, as other family members and friends try to avoid social interaction with those living with dementia.
  • Support network – As a result carers may experience a loss of their support network.
  • Fear – Carers may worry that a lack of personal hygiene may be mistaken for neglect.
  • Carers and other family members may also struggle with feelings of shame, guilt and anger resulting in increased feelings of caregiver burden.

Mum and Stigma

Although Mum herself had a very stigmatized view of dementia I also came across many examples of stigma throughout Mum’s illness including:

  • People talking to her like she was a three year old or talking over or through her like she wasn’t there.
  • Friends who slowly drifted away and stopped visiting.
  • People commenting because Mum hadn’t washed her hair or her clothing wasn’t coordinated.
  • People who commented that they were surprised that Mum had dementia because she was a well educated teacher!!
  • In the later stages of the illness, when Mum did struggle to communicate effectively, I had more than one person say “but your Mum has effectively gone now”. Well she hadn’t gone but it demonstrates how some people view the quality and value of life of those living with dementia.

I also saw the impact stigma had on Mum and it is one of the reasons why I am so passionate about raising awareness. Nobody should stigmatize dementia because anyone of us could get the condition (it doesn’t care about intelligence or strength of character) and if you don’t, it is almost certain that someone you know will.

To help raise awareness and reduce stigma I have created a range of t-shirts, sweatshirts and other products with the following design. Click here to visit the ‘Just Be Dementia Friendly’ products page. 

Dementia & Stigma

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.