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What to Do When a Parent is Diagnosed With Dementia: 10 Steps to Help You Move Forward

12 minute readLast updated January 2, 2024
fact checkedon October 16, 2023
Written by Angelike Gaunt
Reviewed by Maureen Bradley, senior care expert and former community directorMaureen Bradley, a specialist with A Place for Mom, has advised families on senior care for 20 years.
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If your loved one has been newly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia, you may feel like your world has been turned upside down. You may be sad at the thought of cherished memories that will be lost. You may also feel overwhelmed about the progressive nature of dementia symptoms and worried about how to provide the best care for your parent. Learning about your loved one’s disease and understanding what to expect can help you cope with a dementia diagnosis, and you can feel empowered to make the best decisions about your parent’s care, whether it’s at home or in a memory care community.

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Coping with a dementia diagnosis

It can be difficult to accept an Alzheimer’s or dementia diagnosis. Sadness, anger, denial, and fear are just a few of the emotions you and your loved one may experience. You may be grieving for your parent — especially if they already have significant memory loss.

Encourage your loved one to talk to you about their feelings honestly. It’s OK if you don’t have all the answers and solutions. A listening ear can go a long way.

A dementia diagnosis also offers you an opportunity to treasure the remaining time you do have with your loved one. Cherish the moments you have together, and seize opportunities to tell them how much they mean to you. Instead of thinking about the skills they have lost or may lose in the future, try to focus on what your loved one can still do.

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What to expect as dementia progresses

Dementia is broken into seven stages with symptoms ranging from mild to severe. Most people can function independently during the early stages. Your loved one will likely still be able to drive, attend social events, and live on their own.

However, the most common types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, are progressive. This means symptoms worsen over time. As your parent’s disease progresses, they’ll need more support with daily activities and with common behavioral symptoms such as confusion, agitation, wandering, and sleep problems.

People with late- and end-stage dementia require 24-hour supervision and care. They lose their ability to communicate coherently and often need assistance with bathing, dressing, feeding, walking, and using the bathroom.

Dementia life expectancy

Alzheimer’s and dementia progression varies widely. Some people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia may live between three and 11 years after diagnosis, while others live 20 years or more. The severity of your loved one’s dementia will affect their life expectancy after a dementia diagnosis. Common causes of death in people with dementia include pneumonia, dehydration, malnutrition, falls, and other injuries or infections.

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10 steps to take if your loved one has been newly diagnosed with dementia

You can’t change your loved one’s diagnosis, but there are things you can do to help them cope and stay healthy and safe for as long as possible.

  1. Learn about your loved one’s disease. Understanding what to expect can help you feel more confident and empowered to create a dementia care plan that fits your aging relative’s needs and improves their quality of life. Learn about proven lifestyle changes like exercise (physical and mental) and brain-healthy diets clinically shown to slow the progression of dementia.
  2. Seek medical treatment. There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s or dementia, but specialized treatments are available to help with symptoms. Things like behavior management strategies and supportive therapies can help ease symptoms and improve quality of life. Stay in close contact with your loved one’s doctor to discuss the right treatment for their disease.
  3. Understand dementia behaviors. Aggression, confusion, and manipulation are all symptoms of dementia. It can be hard to adjust to your loved one’s new behaviors, and it’s important to come up with coping strategies to help you handle your own reactions.
  4. Find support. You’re not alone. Joining a support group online or in person can help you find information, advice, encouragement, and connection with others who are sharing your experiences.
  5. Anticipate that your family member may not understand they’re ill. After a recent diagnosis, it’s understandable for your loved one to go through a period of denial. However, some people with Alzheimer’s or dementia truly don’t comprehend their diagnosis. Your loved one may have anosognosia — the inability to recognize dementia — which can be diagnosed by their doctor.
  6. Make home a safe place. Assess your loved one’s home for safety. Remove potential fall hazards, such as rugs and electrical cords. Be sure fire and carbon monoxide alarms are installed and working. Use technology to help you stay connected and keep track of your loved one’s whereabouts.
  7. Engage in fun activities with your loved one. Your family member can still feel fulfilled and enjoy activities. Try to engage the senses and give your loved one plenty of opportunities to connect with the world. Music, smells, and family photographs can all spark memories and enjoyment. Depending on interests, art, music, and dog or pet therapy show positive effects on dementia patients.
  8. Assess safety on the road.. Is your loved one getting lost on familiar routes? Do they seem confused or have trouble following instructions? Drivers can lose focus as their cognitive function declines. Keep an eye out for possible signs that it might be time to stop driving.
  9. Organize financial and legal matters. Encourage your loved one to organize legal and financial documents. Important documents — such as a list of bank accounts, tax returns, and vehicle titles — should be stored for easy access. This is a good time to prepare or update a will, living will, and financial and medical power of attorney. An elder law attorney or certified financial planner can help you and your loved one plan for essential legal and financial matters.
  10. Plan for the future. Your loved one will increasingly need more help. Establish support networks early on so they’re available to rely on as your parent’s disease progresses. Get help from other family members, look for home care for dementia or respite care, or learn about memory care communities. These specific communities offer round-the-clock supervision and care with specially trained staff for seniors with dementia or other forms of memory loss.

Figuring out what to do when your parent is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia isn’t something you have to do alone. Contact our Senior Living Advisors (SLAs) for free support when planning for future dementia care. Our SLAs are experts in memory care and senior living communities in your area. They will take the time to learn about your family’s unique needs to help you determine the right type of care for your loved one.


Meet the Author
Angelike Gaunt

Angelike Gaunt is the Director of Editorial Content Strategy at A Place for Mom. She’s developed health content for consumers and medical professionals at major health care organizations, including Mayo Clinic, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the University of Kansas Health System. She’s passionate about developing accessible content to simplify complex health topics.

Reviewed by

Maureen Bradley, senior care expert and former community director

The information contained on this page is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical, legal or financial advice or create a professional relationship between A Place for Mom and the reader. Always seek the advice of your health care provider, attorney or financial advisor with respect to any particular matter, and do not act or refrain from acting on the basis of anything you have read on this site. Links to third-party websites are only for the convenience of the reader; A Place for Mom does not endorse the contents of the third-party sites.

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