There is no one test to diagnose dementia. Rather, the diagnosis involves a range of assessments and tests and this can mean that confirming a diagnosis can take time, particularly in the early stages.
A diagnosis of dementia usually begins with a General Practitioner, GP. It can be helpful to make a note of the changes causing concern before your visit to help you to talk to the GP about them. Perhaps keep a diary to help you to do this.
The GP will generally begin an assessment by ruling out other possible causes of symptoms your loved one is experiencing; this may involve running some tests including blood tests and memory tests as well as an overview of their general health.
The GP may refer to a consultant such as a geriatrician or a psychiatrist of later life who will conduct a full assessment to try to establish the cause of the symptoms. Click here to find out who’s who in dementia care, as they can work with you and your family to help you understand the diagnosis.
If your family member is under 65, they will be referred to a neurologist or a memory clinic. If you feel a referral to a specialist would be helpful you can discuss this with the GP.
The consultant will conduct a full assessment to try to establish the cause of the symptoms. They usually work with a specialist team and you may see a number of people from this team. This process usually includes
- blood tests
- a full history of family medical background
- a physical examination
- an assessment of memory, thinking and activities of daily living.
- a brain scan (CT, MRI) to identify any changes taking place in the brain which may form part of the assessment, but this may not be required for every case.
The doctors will work directly with the person who is experiencing changes. The doctor may also ask family members to talk about any changes they see or any concerns they may have.
After the assessment, the consultant will draw together all the results and determine what is happening. It may be that the assessment is repeated at a later date in order to identify further changes and confirm a diagnosis.
A memory clinic service is available for people who are worried about their memory. The clinic can diagnose memory problems as well as give you information, treatment and advice.
There are a currently 25 memory clinics operating in Ireland. Some clinics offer a nationwide service; others offer services to people living in particular part of the country.
The clinics work with people who are experiencing memory problems to diagnose the cause of these problems. All but one of the clinics requires a referral from a GP to access the service.
What if a diagnosis is made?
A diagnosis of dementia comes as a shock, no matter how much it is expected. It is hard for everyone concerned and reassurance and support are vital. The most important thing is to try to be positive and to know that you and your family are not alone. There are people you can talk to and supports and services that can help.
Your GP will be an important person to support you and your loved one through the diagnosis. You can talk to them about any medications and treatments that may be prescribed, about areas such as driving and about any symptoms that may emerge.
The range of emotions you, your loved one with dementia and your family may feel include:
- Disbelief & Denial are very common and are often a way of coping, as they provide time to understand and accept what the diagnosis means. However they can also be a source of frustration for other family members who do not experience disbelief or denial. It is very common for people within the same family to accept or understand a diagnosis at different times and in different ways.
- Relief that there is an explanation for what has been happening.
- Fear about what will happen next and how to cope.
- Reluctance to become a carer or to become part of a support team.
- Guilt can occur even though developing dementia is not anyone’s fault. People can feel guilt for not being understanding or patient or for being angry and frustrated. Guilt that you don’t want to be a carer.
- Loss & sadness about the things a person may not be able to do in the future and for the changes in relationships and future plans.
- Frustration and anger that dementia has happened, and that your lives are changing and you feel helpless to stop it.
- Loneliness and isolation, as many people feel they are alone when a diagnosis is made, even when they are surrounded by people.
First steps after a diagnosis
Talk to someone you trust; a family member or friend. You can also talk to your doctor, a social worker, or a trusted person in your community. You can talk to different people about different emotions at different times, but talking to someone will help.
Call the National Helpline to speak in confidence to someone who will understand and be there to listen and support you. Freephone 1800 341 341 Monday to Friday 10 am to 5 pm and Saturday 10 am to 4 pm or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Meeting other people who also have a loved one who has been diagnosed with dementia can be a very positive experience. Support groups can provide a safe place to talk and to learn more about dementia and about ways to get help and support. There are also a number of on-line forums and groups where you can connect with others in similar situations. For more information on support groups click here.