Dementia – Disabilities

How Can You Know if Someone With Special Needs Has Dementia?

Dementia – Disabilities. People with special needs live longer now than in the past. This means they can get dementia just like anyone else. People who have Down syndrome have a very high chance of getting one common type of dementia – Alzheimer’s disease. Almost everyone with Down syndrome will get it. And, they often get it at a young age – often in their 40s or 50s. People with seizures that begin in early adulthood also have a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

How Can You Know if Someone With Special Needs Has Dementia
How Can You Know if Someone With Special Needs Has Dementia

Dementia is the leading cause of disability and dependence in older people. More than 50 million people around the world have dementia, and a new case happens somewhere in the world every 3 seconds. Dementia can also affect people under 65 years old. In the later stages of dementia, a person’s immune system is likely to be weak. This means they are more likely to get infections, which can last for a long time in some cases. People with dementia often die of pneumonia caused by an infection, which is one of the most common ways they die.

The symptoms of dementia can be different in someone with special needs. It can cause them to forget skills they have learned. And like everyone else who gets dementia, they may be unable to take care of themselves.

Dementia – Disabilities

Changes in health and, in some cases, the start of seizures in older age can be early signs. Some people may also lose the ability to dress themselves, take care of themselves, and do things that take more than one step. Changes in the way a person talks and remembers things are also signs that they may have dementia.

Signs of Dementia in a Person with Special Needs
Signs of Dementia in a Person with Special Needs

If you are taking care of someone with special needs, here are some signs of dementia that you might see.

Signs of Dementia in a Person with Special Needs
  • Less interest in being sociable, talking, or telling you what they think.
  • Less interest in usual activities.
  • Less ability to pay attention.
  • Being sad, fearful, or anxious.
  • Being irritable, aggressive, or not cooperating.
  • Sleep problems.
  • Being noisy.
  • Trouble walking or losing coordination.

Support Someone with Special Needs and Dementia

Someone with special needs may not understand what ‘dementia’ is. They may not understand what is happening to them. They may get upset or frustrated. You can help them in several ways. Tell them to see a doctor to find out what kind of dementia they have. Be supportive and patient. Use words they know. Help them to continue doing things they like to do. Keep a normal schedule.

Dementia - Disabilities
Support Someone with Special Needs and Dementia

Dementia can get worse quickly in people with special needs, so be prepared to add support when needed to keep them safe.

Tips to Support Someone with Special Needs and Dementia
  • Talking might become hard for them. Pay attention to their body language to help figure out what they want or need.
  • Listen carefully to everything they try to tell you.
  • Be positive and reassuring.
  • Let them be in control when possible.
  • Help them feel secure and comfortable by sticking to regular routines and schedules.
  • Try to keep things calm and familiar.
  • Humming or music can be soothing.
  • Look at photos together.
  • Help them to eat well.
  • Ask the doctor for help if…..
    • They get aggressive
    • You feel overwhelmed


Useful Websites 
  • Alzheimer’s Association or call their helpline 24 hours, 7 days a week (800) 272-3900
  • National Down Syndrome Society or call them (800) 221-4602

Written By: Cynthia Vargo, MNpS, Alzheimer’s Association – Desert Southwest Chapter

This project was supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under grant number UB4HP19047, Arizona Geriatric Education Center.  This information or content and conclusions are those of the author and should not be construed as the official position or policy of, nor should any endorsements be inferred by HRSA, HHS or the U.S. Government.

See more: Akathisia in Older Adults


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