The psychological and emotional impact of dementia

Living with dementia will affect a person's feelings, thoughts and responses. It is important to recognise and respond to the person's emotional needs.

Understanding and supporting someone with dementia
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Impact of a dementia diagnosis

Someone recently diagnosed with dementia is likely to experience a range of emotions. These may include grief, loss, anger, shock, fear, disbelief and even relief. Sometimes people experience positive reactions when they receive a diagnosis of dementia. They can feel relieved to know what is wrong or be glad to be able to plan ahead. 

Some people may struggle to deal with these emotions. They may feel afraid about the future, scared about moments of confusion and forgetfulness, and upset about the impact dementia has on those around them. 

The confirmation of a diagnosis may trigger depression and anxiety in some people. There are a number of talking therapies and – if needed – drug treatments available for depression and anxiety. 

Those around the person will also have their own emotional reactions to cope with. It is important that both the person with dementia and those around them feel able to express their feelings. 

Tips for carers 

  • Do not dismiss a person's worries – listen and show them that you are there for them. 
  • Try to enjoy the moment and try not to spend too much time thinking about what the future may or may not hold. 
  • A sense of humour may help, if the time feels right. 
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Emotional effects

People with dementia often experience changes in their emotional responses. They may have less control over their feelings and how to express them. For example, someone may overreact to things, have rapid mood changes or feel irritable. They may also appear unusually distant or uninterested in things. 

These changes are often difficult for carers to deal with. It can help to remember that these changes are partly caused by damage to the person's brain. Someone may react more emotionally to a situation than might be expected because of a decline in their ability to think clearly or loss of factual memories. 

It is important to look beyond the words or behaviours you see to the feelings that the person might be trying to express. Strong emotions may also be caused by unmet needs. Carers should try to work out what these needs are and meet them where possible. 

Impact on confidence and self-esteem 

Dementia may cause people to feel insecure and lose confidence in themselves and their abilities. They may feel they are no longer in control and may not trust their own judgement. They may also experience the effects of stigma and social 'demotion' – not being treated the same way by people – as a result of their diagnosis. 

Effects on health, financial circumstances, employment status and relationships with those around them may also have a negative impact on self-esteem. 

However, some people form new relationships as a result of their diagnosis, through activities such as attending a class or support group. High self-esteem allows some people to cope better with chronic health conditions. 

Tips for carers

  • Offer the person plenty of praise and encouragement – celebrate successes and focus on positives. 
  • Avoid harsh criticism or belittling comments. 
  • Ensure people have time to do the activities they enjoy or that give them purpose.
  • If a person makes a mistake, try to be as supportive as possible. 
  • Help people to maintain existing social relationships and form new ones. This can be done by setting up joint activities with friends and family, joining hobby groups and encouraging conversation.  
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