Tags: Community & relationships Health

“When it starts affecting one's life or other people's lives, then we are quite concerned. And that's where we actually move from a position of 'this might be just ageing' to actually a condition called dementia.”—Professor Peter Gonski, geriatric expert

Key points

  • Dementia can affect the entire brain, resulting not just in memory loss, but also in behaviour and personality changes, and difficulty performing everyday tasks. Getting an official diagnosis is the first step, as other conditions can cause similar symptoms.
  • Supporting a person living with dementia can be challenging for family members. Dementia Australia offers counselling, education and support.
  • Early intervention, support, memory aids and lifestyle modifications can help people with dementia stay independent and cognitively well for as long as possible.


Have you noticed your parent becoming increasingly repetitive, forgetful, or acting out of character? While these can be signs of normal cognitive decline and part of the natural ageing process, they could also be symptoms of dementia.

A dementia diagnosis is scary, but early intervention is key. Once you’ve ruled out other possible conditions, there are a number of simple things your parent can do to maintain their wellbeing and independence for as long as possible.

Senior geriatric expert Professor Peter Gonski has a wealth of experience in managing older people’s conditions and progressing models of care. He explains how to recognise the signs of declining cognitive health, when to raise your concerns, and what to do after a dementia diagnosis.


Understanding dementia


What we call “dementia” can refer to the cognitive decline caused by a number of different conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, vascular dementia and Lewy body dementia.


And while it’s still not "normal" to get dementia, our chances of developing it do increase as we get older—and especially as we approach triple digits. As Peter puts it: “If you’re 70, you’re much less likely to have dementia than when you’re 90 or when you’re a 100.”

 “We have to support the families, the carers, because they’re suffering too.”

Professor Peter Gonski,
geriatric expert

Most people associate dementia with short-term memory loss, but it can actually affect the entire brain, causing personality and behavioural changes, and impacting on a person’s ability to perform everyday tasks.

The first people to notice something amiss are likely to be close friends and family, rather than the individual themselves. But when should you speak up?

“When it starts affecting one’s life or other people’s lives, then we are quite concerned,” says Peter. “And that’s where we actually move from a position of ‘this might be just ageing’ to actually a condition called dementia.”

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What else could it be?

When diagnosing dementia, it’s important to first rule out other conditions that could be causing these changes.

“Deafness is one of them, because if people can’t hear you, they’re not going to respond the way you think they should, and you might start thinking they’ve got dementia,” says Peter. “On the other hand, if people do have deafness and they don’t do anything about it—like wear hearing aids—they do keep out of conversations and they’re sort of socially isolated, and we know that makes dementia worse.”

A person’s mental health should be taken into account too. “When [people are] very depressed, they tend to become very much involved in themselves,” says Peter. “They don’t think about things, they don’t talk to people, and that in itself could look like dementia, but in fact could be depression.”

What to do after a diagnosis of dementia

If you or your parent suspects they might have dementia, the GP is often the first port of call, Peter says. Early diagnosis means that a treatment and management plan can developed as quickly as possible, and your parent can start to make simple lifestyle changes to stay healthy and well.

One of the first steps after a diagnosis is to put geriatric or aged-care services into place. “That’s often through My Aged Care—and they can provide a hell of a lot of support and services, including help around the home, and even day care,” says Peter. If your loved one’s GP doesn’t have much knowledge or expertise in dementia treatment and management, Peter suggests asking for a referral to a geriatric specialist.

“There are aids for mobility, but there are also aids for cognition [and these] can be incredibly useful and increase independence.”

Professor Peter Gonski,
geriatric expert

The next thing to do is to develop a management plan in collaboration with your parent’s healthcare provider. That includes things like reviewing their driving capabilities, and setting up powers of attorney, enduring guardianships and advanced care directives.

Peter also strongly recommends getting in touch with Dementia Australia, which can provide “very, very, very helpful” education, counselling and support for the whole family. “We have to support the families, the carers, because they’re suffering too,” he says. “Someone who’s got dementia may not suffer—they might just continue their life as well as they would like to live it, whereas the people around them are really starting to suffer.”

Simple steps to help your parent stay well for longer

There’s a lot of evidence that exercising, and staying mentally and socially active are very beneficial to people with dementia, says Peter—as are eating well, minimising alcohol consumption, avoiding or quitting smoking, and getting enough sleep.

“When I diagnose dementia, I push those points,” says Peter. “They seem very simple, but it is incredible the number of people who will not exercise, who will not eat well, who will not look after their blood pressure, their diabetes, and all that sort of thing. It's quite incredible. And yet they’re such basic things.”

Memory aids can also be helpful, including putting notices up on the fridge, writing things down, and putting medication into regular packs. “There are aids for mobility, but there are also aids for cognition,” Peter says, “and these can be incredibly useful and increase independence.”

Maintaining independence and dignity

After a dementia diagnosis, “that’s when you start thinking about: how are we going to prop people up? How are we going to keep them as strong and independent as possible? What aids are they going to use?” explains Peter.

And while it may be necessary to support, or even take responsibility for, important decisions—for example, regarding medical care, living situations or finances—your parent needs to be included as much as possible. It comes down giving people the dignity of making their own decisions when they’re able to.

“We might say they can’t make their financial decisions, but maybe they can decide that they want to give away $20 here or there,” says Peter. “So, let’s not just say they have no capacity about anything—let’s say we need to involve them, even though we need to help them in the decision-making.”

A diagnosis of dementia can be challenging, but early intervention, the right support, memory aids and lifestyle changes can all help dramatically improve your parent’s quality of life—and, in turn, allow them to stay well and live independently for longer.


Information provided in this article is not medical advice and you should consult with your healthcare practitioner. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.