NHS expert urges people to spot dementia warning signs in loved ones this Christmas

Family and friends can play a key role in spotting signs of dementia when visiting older people this Christmas according to one of the country’s top experts.

This year, Professor Alistair Burns, NHS England’s National Clinical Director for Dementia and Older Peoples’ Mental Health, has written a Christmas list of a different kind – symptoms of dementia to look out for as people get together to enjoy the festive period. This comes as the Alzheimer’s Society confirms that their support line receives an increase in calls in January after the Christmas gatherings.

Something as simple as forgetting to put the oven on for the Christmas turkey may be a warning that a loved one is experiencing the early stages of dementia. Other things to look out for are:

  • Confusion in a new environment – someone may become disorientated or confused when in a new place. A family holiday in a hotel can be a time when a person can become confused any may include trying to get into the wrong bedroom.
  • Forgetting the names of loved ones to the extent that it causes embarrassment.
  • Being at a relative’s house where the lay out is unusual could put a person’s memory and orientation to the test.
  • Forgetting someone’s present – it might not be a very close relative but sometimes a niece or a nephew’s present can be forgotten as it slips from memory.
  • Complex tasks such as cooking a big Christmas dinner for a large number of people. The sign could be something as obvious as forgetting to switch the oven on, forgetting to put the sprouts on or cooking things in the wrong order.

Professor Burns is also urging people to become an Alzheimer’s Society Dementia Friend for one of their New Year’s resolutions.

In England it is estimated that around 676,000 people have dementia and one-in-three of us will care for someone with the disease at some point in our lives. While it mainly affects people over 65, for some dementia can develop earlier, presenting different issues for the person affected, their carer and their family.

The condition, which is estimated to cost the health service £23 billion a year, is a key priority for NHS England, which has set the target of making this the best country in the world for dementia care and support for individuals with dementia, their carers and families to live and also the best place in the world to undertake research into dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases by 2020.

There are a range of NHS services to help people with dementia and also support for their family and carers. As well as treatment from GPs and hospitals, it can also include other types of healthcare such as community mental health nurses, physiotherapy, hearing care, optometry, foot care, speech and language therapy, and mobility specialists.

Professor Burns said: “Dementia is something that happens slowly so it may slip by unnoticed in people we see regularly. That’s why the Christmas visit to wider family and friends is an opportunity to spot the early warning signs.

“The NHS is here to help, but diagnosis is the first big step and this is where people who know someone best can really make a difference in spotting the signs of dementia.

“The important thing is to look for changes in normal behaviour.  I’m not a great cook so me not being able to whizz up a Christmas dinner would be no surprise, but when someone who usually shines in the kitchen is forgetting to do the basics, that can be a vital clue.

“While it may be tempting to put forgetfulness down to one too many Christmas brandies, it could be a sign of something more serious so I would urge everyone to take a bit of extra time to consider if someone they know may need help.

“And finally, remember Christmas can be a time of real loneliness for many people, so if you have or know of a relative or neighbour who might be alone, make sure you pop into see them, it will be greatly appreciated and can make a huge difference to their mental health.”

Erika Aldridge, Head of Advice at Alzheimer’s Society, said: “Calls to the Alzheimer’s Society Helpline increase in January with people seeking advice and support after the festive season, many of whom were worried about what could be signs of dementia.

“It can be difficult to know how to discuss concerns with a loved one, and there is no right or wrong way to approach this. If you do notice any changes in someone close to you that gives you cause for concern, such as repeated forgetfulness, confusion or behaviour that is out of character, our Helpline is here to offer you expert advice.”

Christmas can also be a time to think about positive aspects of preventing dementia. So for example, play a board game instead of watching another hour of TV, get up and take the dog for a walk or go for a family ramble instead of snoozing in the chair for an hour.