“A lot of people have this idea of what they think they know what dementia is, and they have this “crazy idea” about what it is because they simply don’t know,” says Professor Steven Sabat.

But what’s also important to remember is what dementia is not;

  • Dementia doesn’t take away one’s ability to care about other people, other than oneself
  • Dementia does not mean you’re not generous
  • It doesn’t mean that a person no longer has purpose
  • Dementia doesn’t mean an awful lot of things that are all about being human….

Prof. Steven Sabat is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Georgetown University, USA. For the past 35 years, he has studied the cognitive and social abilities of people with Alzheimer’s disease – he is the dementia expert.

“I have a problem,” declares Prof. Sabat, “and this is a problem that only you can help me solve.”

“So I’m asking you to help me solve it.”

His problem? That there is a term called memory loss and that it’s firmly attached to what people think about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

“That term is not only dangerous – but it’s untrue”.

Why do we use this term? He believe it just caught on and spread like wildfire.

“Expressions, phrases, they get into the public eye and ear and all of a sudden everybody says it”.

“It’s like everybody is imitating the same thing, nobody knows why they’re doing it, but they’re all doing it – mass media, professional journals, carers, partners, medical professionals all use the term “memory loss” to describe one of the problems that people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia”.

“Thinking that people diagnosed with dementia have something called “memory loss” is harmful for a number of reasons”.

Firstly, if people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease have “memory loss”, then they supposedly cannot make new memories and if they cannot make new memories, they cannot be affected for very long by what happens to them hear and now.

And if they cannot be affected by recent events, then there is this idea that “it doesn’t matter how we treat them” – which is not true.

“It is really memory dysfunction rather than loss and therefore what we do around people living dementia, how we treat them, can enable them to function, can support them and build, rather than erode, their confidence,” says Prof. Sabat.

“We need to change the way we think about memory loss by realising that recalling is not the same as remembering – because there are other ways, aside from recalling, to remember.”  

“If we assume someone is experiencing something called memory loss then we may well be assuming incorrectly that they cannot make new memories and assume that they cannot be affected by what happens to them in the here and now.

“Memory dysfunction is a defining symptom of dementia but how we treat people living with dementia can disempower their ability to remain engaged and involved in their day to day lives and activities.”

Though loved ones and professional carers try to help, “the tendency to ask a person, “What did you have for breakfast?”, or “What day of the week is today?” is unhelpful to people diagnosed because one is asking the person to recall information and recall is the exact method of retrieval from memory that is the person’s greatest problem,” Prof Sabat says.

“Our tone of voice or the way we ask a question can create anxiety for the person diagnosed and lead to that person not wanting to interact with us.”

It’s worth remembering that small actions can make a big difference. For example, if a person encounters challenges everyday activities – then they are more likely to become less engaged with their friends, family and their community.

And social isolation can be damaging to person’s mental and physical health – regardless of a dementia diagnosis.

A diagnosis of dementia does not define a person – it doesn’t stop them from being who they are. They don’t forget that, and neither should you.

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