Do you have a senior loved one with dementia and notice your senior having more difficulty seeing or hearing things lately?
Have you observed subtle changes in them such as straining to see or hear, sitting closer to you or turning up the volume of the TV?
Did you realize that even seemingly small changes could be the result of a sensory loss that could be corrected?
Sometimes when we are caregivers of seniors with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia, we can’t always determine which came first, the dementia itself or the altered behavior you’ve noted.
It can be difficult to tell if these subtle behavior changes are caused by the dementia, confusion associated with cognitive loss or some other unrelated reason.
Or could it be that our senior loved ones are just frustrated with how their life has changed?
Sensory Loss Can Lead to Dementia
We continue to learn more about what impacts the lives and health of older adults, thanks to growing numbers of research studies.
Research shows that having a sensory loss, such as a hearing impairment, can lead to dementia. We are also learning that having a vision loss can further worsen symptoms of dementia.
Losing the ability to see and hear can have profound impacts on behavior and escalate the symptoms of dementia.
The good news is that there are strategies and treatments to diagnose and treat sensory loss in those with dementia.
Cataracts Common Among Seniors
Have you talked with friends and neighbors, or even family members, who have had recent surgery on their eyes? It seems all of us know someone who has had cataract surgery these days and usually in both eyes.
Cataracts are all too common and are the leading cause of vision loss in those over 55. (Even our pets get cataracts as they age!) The lens of the eye gets cloudy making it hard to focus light images through the eye onto the retina. Images are sent from the retina to the brain.
How many of us have looked lovingly into the eyes of our family and friends and seen what appears to be a cloudy film over the color of their eyes progressing toward the center? I have.
Cataract surgery has become common and is performed every day on numerous people. It has been estimated that more than three million cataract surgeries, lens transplants, are done each year in the US. It takes about 30 minutes, typically with few complications or pain. Recovery is generally within a day with the senior resuming their normal activities.
Ignoring cataracts can lead to blindness. Even before that happens, the quality of life of those suffering with diminished vision can be severely hindered.
Treating Cataracts Improves Dementia?
A new study out of the Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Ohio has found that having cataract surgery can have more benefits for the person suffering with dementia than their improved vision. The results were presented at the recent Alzheimer’s Association meeting in Copenhagen.
Along with the vision improvement, it was found that mental decline was decreased in those with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Better eyesight improved their quality of life according to researchers and caregivers.
The study, which should be noted was small, found that those who had cataract surgery after six months showed a slower decline in memory and thinking difficulty and improvements in behavior. Even the caregivers reported improvements in their care recipient with dementia.
Health Assessments Still Important with Dementia
The researchers stress the need to routinely assess the general health of people with dementia. Care providers should be looking at more risk factors such as balance, vision and medical risks. They also encourage other sensory interventions be pursued for people with dementia including vision screening and hearing loss as this will also improve quality of life.
Those diagnosed with dementia often don’t get full medical evaluations for a variety of reasons, including reduced ability to understand directions from the healthcare provider, being resistant to care or the attitude that ‘why put them through it’ or ‘there’s no need for extra care’ with regard to someone with dementia.
This study highlights that need for interventions that are able to improve the quality of their life and keep them safe. Falls are more likely in someone who can’t see well. Depression and isolation can occur when a senior is having trouble hearing conversation and can’t see clearly to remain engaged.
Providing sensory stimulation also can benefit the caregiver who is under stress to keep their senior safe and happy.
Impaired Hearing Leads to Isolation
If your senior has a hearing impairment, it could cause them to reduce their participation in events and activities, beginning to withdraw. It seems only natural to think that if you can’t hear others talking, hear the music that is playing, hear the dialogue on TV, or join the conversation that this could also lead to depression and decreased quality of life.
A study carried out by the Gerontology Research Center found that social relationships are important to a high quality of life as we age.
- In the US, it is estimated that 36 million adults have some degree of hearing loss.
- 1 in 3 people between the ages of 65 and 74 has hearing loss and nearly half of those older than 75 have difficulty hearing.
- Only 1 out of 5 people who could benefit from a hearing aid actually wears one, including many who own them.
This study found that older adults with hearing loss participated in groups and met with friends less than those without a hearing loss. Those with hearing loss self-reported a poorer ability to live their lives than if they had normal hearing.
It seems that we all know that not having adequate hearing or vision would impair our day to day ability. However the statistics show that knowing there is a problem and correcting the problem may be two different things for many seniors.
The impact of these deficits is even worse for someone diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia. They may not be able to express their needs clearly.
Their frustration with their limitations could be mistakenly thought to be confusion from the dementia.
Vision & Hearing Intervention Steps
There can be many reasons for loss of hearing or vision. They could be age-related, caused by external factors such as loud noise, or stemming from a medical condition such as macular degeneration, tinnitus, head injury, tumors or an infection.
Depending on the cause of the loss, your senior may be able to receive treatment.
The first step would be have them evaluated thoroughly by their medical team. Visiting the family doctor, audiologist and eye doctor should be done regularly — especially if something is suspected.
Vision correction through prescription lenses, medications for glaucoma or surgery for cataracts is something to be explored and not disregarded because there is a dementia diagnosis. If your senior has a vision loss you can do things such as give large print materials, brighten the area with adequate lighting and offer contrasting colors in things they use such as plates and furnishings. Making their world bigger, bolder and brighter will make it easier for them to maneuver through it.
Hearing correction can be something that will help your senior remain involved with the world around them longer. Hearing aids, hearing modifications such as amplification systems, assistive listening devices and strategies such as looking them in the face to talk or talking more loudly but not shouting the first time can help your senior understand better. You can also reduce noise distractions such as undue noise or loud sounds while you are trying to communicate.
The effort to get your senior loved one to the doctor, unless their dementia is too advanced, will be worth the sensory gain that will improve their daily living.
Do you have any experiences you would like to share about how sensory loss affected your senior?
We would love to hear how you overcame vision or hearing losses and the changes they experienced after you intervened.