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Understanding Dementia: Behavioral Warning Signs to Remember

understanding dementia

You don’t want to think about your loved one not recognizing you. And when you’re faced with the early stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s, it doesn’t always look like dementia at all.

But the truth is, you cannot ignore dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. It kills one in three seniors–more than breast and prostate cancer combined.

But dementia doesn’t need to be your loved one’s whole story. With proper care and early treatment, many seniors can manage their symptoms and continue to lead full, productive lives for as long as possible. The first step is understanding dementia and knowing how to recognize the early signs.

Here are a few early behavioral signs to watch for.

Short-Term Memory Changes

One of the most obvious changes you’ll notice in your loved one is changes in short-term memory.

However, if you’re looking for the moment when your loved one doesn’t remember the past ten years, you’re flying past a lot of early red flags.

Changes to short-term memory, especially in the early stages of dementia, are much subtler than that. They might be able to remember something from many years ago but may struggle to recall what they had for breakfast.

It also includes things like forgetting why they entered a room, forgetting where they were supposed to go or what they were supposed to do on a given day, or forgetting where they left an item.

The trouble is that many of these things happen to people every day, so it’s easy to pass them off as everyday forgetfulness. When it becomes a pattern, though, then your concern is valid.

Trouble Finding the Right Words

Everyone struggles to remember a word from time to time or struggles to find the phrasing they need to tell a story.

In seniors, though, a pattern of difficulty finding words is a troubling sign.

Holding a conversation with someone who has dementia can be difficult for a few reasons. For one, they struggle to find the right words to express themselves, which means the conversation takes longer to conclude. In the meantime, they may have trouble recalling the pattern of the conversation.

Even in the early stages of dementia, you may begin to spot this pattern, though it will be less pronounced.

Difficulty Planning or Solving Problems

Most people get stumped by basic math every once in a while, especially if you’re not a numbers person by nature. It’s common for seniors to make an occasional error when balancing their checkbook.

It’s cause for concern, however, when someone has difficulty developing and following through with a plan. They may also have difficulty managing numbers, particularly in the steps required to do basic math.

As such, you may notice that your loved one has more trouble keeping track of monthly bills or following recipes, a problem exacerbated by the fact that many seniors with dementia have difficulty concentrating.


Have you ever stared off into space, daydreaming? Most people have.

What you might not know is that staring can be a sign of dementia.

The clinical term for this is “reduced gaze,” and it refers to a dementia symptom that alters someone’s ability to move their eyes normally. In fact, reduced gaze is a common symptom in many neurocognitive disorders, which makes sense when you recall that vision is the dominant sense for humans.

In dementia, this means that people are less likely to track things with their eyes, something all humans do every day. This can also show up as skipping lines when they try to read, and it often looks like staring at a fixed point.

The person with dementia may not notice this, though the people around them certainly can if they’re paying attention.

Difficulty Completing Familiar Tasks

In addition to difficulty with planning or problem solving, one of the most commonly recognized symptoms of dementia is difficulty completing familiar tasks.

The classic example of this forgetting the directions to a familiar location like the grocery store. It often shows up in more complex tasks like managing a checkbook, but it’s also present if someone needs to be reminded of the microwave settings or the rules of a favorite game.

Eating Objects

One of the more peculiar signs of dementia is also a symptom that is difficult to attribute to anything else: eating objects, particularly nonfood objects or food items that have spoiled.

You’re probably very confused–why would someone eat objects? How does that make sense?

Like many dementia behaviors, it can be difficult to understand from a clearheaded perspective. But when you think out the logic of dementia, it’s actually rather simple.

The person forgets what to do with the objects in front of them, or forgets what they’re supposed to be doing at the moment, or both at once.

For example, someone with dementia might sit at the dinner table or a restaurant table and try to eat the flower in the vase.

They know, logically, that they’re sitting at a table with place settings, which means they’re likely there to eat, but they can’t remember what the flower has to do with it. Since they must be there to eat, then the flower must be there for eating. Ergo, eating the flower.

It’s often an embarrassing symptom for loved ones and the sufferer alike, but there is one plus side, however tragic it is: unlike many dementia symptoms, eating objects cannot be attributed to much else besides dementia.

Losing Empathy and Embarrassment

If your sweet, kind grandpa starts saying insulting things seemingly out of the blue (and, worse, gives no indication that he understands why his statements are rude or inappropriate) this isn’t just a social faux pas. It can actually be an early sign of dementia.

One of the common difficulties for people with dementia is trouble reading social cues, on top of a reduced brain-to-mouth filter, since they often have trouble concentrating and connecting ideas in sentences.

The net result? Your sweet, loving grandpa doesn’t understand why it isn’t socially acceptable to say hurtful things.

And since he isn’t reading the social cues that tell him not to say certain things, he’s also missing the cues that he should be embarrassed by it, or that other people are embarrassed.

Understanding Dementia for Better Treatment

Helping your loved one live with dementia is a scary and difficult time for both the sufferer and their caregiver.

The good news is that with understanding dementia comes an understanding of how to help someone with dementia.

That’s why we take a person-centered approach to memory care–because we know that for all the trials and tribulations of dementia, you are still a family trying to support a beloved relative.

If you think that your loved one may need the support of a memory care facility, we’re here to help. Click here to request a tour and see what we can do for your loved one.