Mate wareware Dementia

Dementia is the name for symptoms caused by different diseases that affect the brain. It includes issues with memory, thinking and social skills. There are many different causes and types of dementia. Alzheimer's disease is one of the most common types.

Symptoms of dementia

Dementia is more common in people over the age of 65, but can affect people as young as 45.

Common symptoms include a decline in your memory and thinking skills. You may have problems with:

  • memory loss
  • thinking speed
  • language, trouble speaking or using the right word
  • understanding
  • decision-making
  • mood
  • physical or daily activities.

Dementia symptoms depend on the cause and the areas of the brain damaged by the disease.

Symptoms often get worse over time. Eventually, dementia affects most functions of the brain. You may need help with daily activities like dressing, going to the toilet, showering and eating. Some people may lose their ability to communicate.

Causes of dementia

Different diseases cause dementia. Many of them are an abnormal build-up of proteins in the brain. This build-up causes nerve cells to function less and die. As the nerve cells die, different areas of the brain shrink.

A person can have a combination of different causes of dementia. Each cause affects different areas of the brain and causes different changes in your behaviour.

Alzheimer's disease

Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia. It affects the way chemical messages are sent between brain cells. It is thought to be caused by the abnormal build-up of 2 proteins called amyloid and tau. These proteins build up around brain cells.

Vascular dementia

Vascular dementia is caused by reduced blood flow to the brain, which damages and eventually kills brain cells.

Dementia with Lewy bodies

Lewy bodies are small clumps of a protein that can develop inside brain cells. These clumps damage the way the cells work and communicate with each other, and the brain cells eventually die.

Fronto-temporal dementia

Fronto-temporal dementia is most often diagnosed in people aged 45 to 65.

Proteins clump together at the front and sides of the brain. This damages nerve cells, causing brain cells to die. This leads to shrinking of these areas of the brain.

Fronto-temporal dementia is more likely to run in whānau than other causes of dementia.

Find out if you have dementia

If you are concerned about your memory, or that of your whānau, it is important to see a healthcare provider.

You could be experiencing memory loss that is not related to dementia and is treatable. Memory loss can have other causes such as:

  • stress
  • depression
  • diabetes
  • side effects of medication.

If your memory loss is due to dementia, it is important to get an early diagnosis. An early diagnosis of dementia can help you to get the best benefit from current treatments that are available. It will also help you to plan for the future and get the right support and advice.

Treatment for dementia

While there is not usually a cure for dementia, there are ways to slow down the onset of the symptoms, including:

  • medicines
  • lifestyle changes
  • dietary changes.

Ways to avoid dementia

There is no way to know if you will get dementia. There are lifestyle changes you can make that could prevent you from getting dementia.

  • Exercise your brain — crosswords, word puzzles, or card games can help.
  • Exercise your body — a healthy body has a direct impact on the brain. Aim to do at least 15 minutes of aerobic or resistance exercise a day.
  • Eat well — healthy food is good for your brain. Make sure plenty of fruit and vegetables a day and include omega oils in your diet.
  • Drink less alcohol and quit smoking — these can be contributing factors to the onset of dementia.
  • Socialise — being socially active may minimise your chances of getting dementia.

Living with dementia

If you have dementia you will be able to cope relatively well in the early stages, with support from whānau and friends, and small lifestyle changes.

You may cope with basic support and changes for a number of months or years. Over time your symptoms and abilities will get worse and you will need to get increased support and make lifestyle changes.

Your rights

If you have dementia, you still have the right to live with dignity and respect. Every person in Aotearoa New Zealand is protected by the Human Rights Act, which gives all people equal opportunities and protects everyone from discrimination.

You are also protected by the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which protects the dignity of people living with disabilities. It makes sure everyone gets equal treatment in all aspects of society. 

Planning your future

The early stage of dementia is a good time to find out what support and choices are available to you, so you can plan for the future. As your symptoms increase, you will be less able to make these decisions.

An Enduring Power of Attorney (EPA) is a person that you trust that you have nominated to look after you and your things if you can no longer do it yourself. If your EPA is activated, your trusted person will be able to make decisions on your behalf.

Enduring Power of Attorney (EPA) for personal care and welfare — NZ government (external link)

You may also want to make an Advance Care Plan (ACP). It sets out the terms for your future care if you can no longer make your wishes understood.

Advance Care Planning — Age Concern NZ (external link)

Caring for someone with dementia

Dementia affects the whole whānau. If you are kaitiaki (carer) for someone with dementia, you need to get lots of support.

There is a lot of information available to help you in your caring role. Organisations, such as Alzheimer's New Zealand provide helpful advice on how to cope, what to expect, and what is likely to happen in the future.

Alzheimer's New Zealand (external link)

Deciding to find an alternative to caring for someone with dementia at home can be an extremely difficult decision. Find guidance for caring with someone with dementia and rest homes.

Transitioning into residential care — Alzheimer's New Zealand (external link)

Support for dementia

Ngā Ratonga (dementia services) are important to reduce the burden and stress on those whānau caring for their elders or kaumātua.

Alzeheimer's New Zealand has more information on:

  • finding local help
  • supporting someone with dementia
  • transitioning into residential care
  • the later stages of dementia.

Get support — Alzheimer's New Zealand (external link)

Related websites

Mate wareware: Understanding ‘dementia’ from a Māori perspective

An NZ Medical Journal article on a study on Māori understandings of mate wareware (dementia). It covers the importance of Te Oranga Wairua (spiritual wellbeing) for kaumātua and and communities.

Dementia NZ

Dementia NZ is a national organisation that provides community dementia support services to areas
covering 70% of Aotearoa New Zealand’s population. Find information on dementia and support.

Alzheimer's New Zealand

Find more information on dementia, where to access support, how to get invovled and community stories.

Age Concern NZ

A charity dedicated to people over 65, their friends, and whānau. They promote dignity, wellbeing, equity and respect and provide expert information and support services in response to older people's needs.

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