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Is Dementia Emotionally Contagious? It Appears to Be!

Is Dementia Emotionally Contagious? It Appears to Be!


L.T. Force, Ph.D.


The question: “Is Dementia Emotionally Contagious? Although there doesn’t appear to be a body of scientific knowledge in support of this question - there are numerous indicators that would create a pause in constructing an answer. First, the definition of dementia:


Dementia is not a specific disease but is rather a general term for the impaired ability to remember, think, or make decisions that interferes with doing everyday activities. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. Though dementia mostly affects older adults, it is not a part of normal aging.


As you can see, dementia is a constellation of indicators - including impairment in remembering, thinking and decision making. Interesting to know, there are over 144 different types of dementia with Alzheimer’s disease (known as SDAT - Senile Dementia Alzheimer’s Type) being one of the dementia-types. However, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common dementia we speak about.

As a scientific community, we have become more advanced in our diagnostic profile - to arrive at a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. As I tell my students, “Alzheimer’s disease is the most misdiagnosed disorder of the 21st Century. Alzheimer’s disease is the last diagnosis that you should arrive at - not the first - after all possibilities have been explored. Just because an older adult is experiencing difficulties with thought and language - it doesn’t mean the person has a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease”. In addition, in working with clients and their families, I always ask two pertinent questions: “Have you experienced any head injuries over the last 5-10 years and have you ever been diagnosed with Lyme Disease?” The intent is to help rule out any neurological impact - lasting results of Head Injury or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) or viral impact (Lyme Disease). Both of these events can produce behaviors and actions that mimic what looks like Alzheimer’s disease. The other thing I emphasize to my students and clients is: “You don’t arrive at a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease by “conversation” - there is a whole battery of diagnostic tests and procedures that need to be conducted with Specialists - before you definitively arrive at the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease - as there are many reasons where the constellations of behaviors that are manifested - present a: “pseudo-dementia” (things that look like Alzheimer’s disease - but are not) - and that is why you need to work with Specialists in this field and / or Research-Based Memory Clinics”.

As noted, as a field of science and practice - we have come a long way. My first clinical job (in the late 1970’s) was at Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains, NY. I was teaching as an adjunct at a local college - and the course I was teaching was for adult students completing their undergraduate degrees. A year after the course finished, I received a call from one of my former students. He was the Head of Human Resources (HR) at Burke Rehabilitation and indicated they were launching a:

”Medical Model Alzheimer’s Adult Day Care Program”. He asked if I would be interested in applying for the position as Program Director. I told him: “I don’t know much about Alzheimer’s disease”. He told me: “Not to worry - they would teach me”. A career was born!

During my time at Burke Rehabilitation, the researchers were looking at every option as to: “Why do some individuals get Alzheimer’s disease and others don’t? Was it in fact a virus? Was it contagious? Was it environmentally stimulated? And so on…. As you can see, we have come a long way forward in our understanding of the etiology of the disease.

But beyond the parameters of: “Alzheimer’s disease as a diagnosis - what about the realities associated with family members….specifically caregivers of Persons with Alzheimer’s disease?”

**** Caregiver Statistics:

15.7 million people

Estimating the Impact of Caregiving and Employment on Well-Being: Outcomes & Insights in Health Management. About 15.7 million adult family caregivers care for someone who has Alzheimer's disease or other dementia. (Alzheimer's Association).

The number (15.7 M Caregivers) is staggering! And typically when you conduct a Google Search of Caregiving - over 63 million resources appear - highlighted mainly by topics of stress and health concerns:

Caregiver Stress:

About 63,800,000 results (0.54 seconds)

Search Results

Featured snippet from the web

Caregiver stress is due to the emotional and physical strain of caregiving. Caregivers report much higher levels of stress than people who are not caregivers. Many caregivers are providing help or are "on call" almost all day. Sometimes, this means there is little time for work or other family members or friends.


The question I have: “Is Dementia Emotionally Contagious?”, remains the same. You see, as I previously stated two things: 1). In my early career, Alzheimer’s disease was being investigated as a possible virus (the thinking was….that is why some people get it….and some don’t) and 2). Presently, when you conduct a Google Search of Caregiving - the majority of “hits” amplify stress, anxiety and having a sense of being overwhelmed. Is it possible that as Caregivers we are the ones experiencing: “an impairment in our ability to remember, think, or make decisions that interferes with doing everyday activities”….a form of “Caregiver Amnesia” - where we have forgotten all of the things these people, these family members, these parents have done for us across our lifetime…. from birth on? Maybe it’s time to reframe our perspective, views and definitions about Caregiving from: resentment, anger, frustration and being overwhelmed….to a new paradigm….driven by a sense of awe, appreciation, family obligation and gratitude. We have a tendency to forget what has been done for us in the early parts of our lives, and who had been present for us…. “not with resentment, but with love”. These people (who have paid it forward for us) are now in: “Our Audience”…..waiting….in need….and now it’s our turn. It’s time we eliminate: “Caregiver Amnesia” and replace it with: “Caregiver Payback!” ….


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