Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 2006;73(4):653-654

See related article on behavior disorders of dementia.

What kinds of problems do people with dementia have?

People with dementia (say: duh-MEN-shuh) can have changes in their personality and the way they act. They might be confused about what is real, and they might see things that are not there. If someone you know has these problems, it does not mean that he or she is mentally ill. Dementia is a medical problem.

People with dementia might not want to do things they used to like. They may not talk as much as they used to, and they might be tense or nervous. They might be sad, cry easily, or have trouble sleeping and eating. As the dementia gets worse, more of these problems happen.

Almost all people with dementia will have some changes in the way they act. These problems probably are caused by the same things that cause the person’s memory loss.

Will these problems get worse?

Many people with dementia will have problems called psychotic (say: sigh-COT-ik) symptoms. They might believe things that are not real. They also might see, hear, or feel things that are not real. They might argue with you if you try to reason with them.

Many people with these problems get upset and say they “want to go home,” even if they are already in their own house. Sometimes they might tell you that they are going to visit someone who has died.

Can my doctor tell if some other illness is causing the problems?

It is important to find out if these changes are because of an illness or a reaction to medicine. If someone in your family starts acting differently, you should take him or her to the doctor. The doctor will want to know when the problems started and will ask other questions to find out how the problems are affecting the family.

How are these problems treated?

Watch for things that trigger the problems, and do your best to avoid them. Teach your family to compromise. It is important that other family members learn to simplify things at home. Medicine might help reduce how often and how bad the problems are, but it usually does not “cure” them.

What can I expect?

Some people with dementia can be helped by having a set routine. They should eat meals at the same times each day, and go to bed and wake up at the same time. As the disease gets worse, they will not be able to take care of themselves, make themselves understood, or walk. Most families with someone who has dementia have to think about putting their loved one into a nursing home.

Can I do anything to stop these problems from happening?

No. These problems are part of dementia. It is important to remember that the anger and confusion that your family member feels are part of the illness. It does not mean that their feelings about you have changed.

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor.

The Alzheimer’s Association

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