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Dementia or Old Age: Six Ways They Differ

Dementia or Old Age

Dementia and old age can be difficult to tell apart, but there are some key differences. In this post, we’ll look at six ways dementia and old age differ. Keep in mind that these are generalisations – some people may experience old age in a way that is different from the norm, just as some people with dementia will not experience every symptom. If you’re ever unsure about whether a loved one might have dementia, it’s best to consult a doctor. But knowing the signs of each condition can help you provide better care for your loved one. So, let’s take a closer look at how dementia and old age differs…


So what do we know about the ageing process?

  • In the normal aging process, forgetfulness does not dramatically affect our ability to complete everyday tasks.
  • It generally does not change our immediate memory or long-term memory.
  • It may result in changes to attention; how we store information; and the speed at which we recall information
  • Does not prevent us from learning new information or skills

1. Memory and New Information

In the normal aging process, people might be more forgetful and take longer to recall information but generally, they will be able to remember in time.  Misplacing items is not uncommon but usually, by retracing their steps, people can find the missing items.  New technology might take longer to learn than when you were younger.

People living with dementia might forget what they have just been told and ask the same question multiple times.  The person might put items such as keys in unusual places, like in the fridge or they might believe that someone has taken them.  They are unable to learn new tasks or set up new technology.  Information about known historical and political events is gradually lost over time.

2. Orientation

Orientation refers to our sense of time and place. As we get older, it is normal to occasionally forget what the date is or the day of the week.  Sometimes older people may become lost in unfamiliar places, but usually, work out where they need to be.

People with dementia, are often disorientated to time, being unsure of time and the passage of time.  As the disease progresses, they will experience difficulty recognising where they are and in the later stages may not recognise familiar people.  They can become lost in familiar environments such as their local neighbourhood or supermarket and not be able to find their way.

3. Executive Functioning

This refers to the more complex thinking skills including planning, problem-solving, abstract thinking, and judgment.  In the normal aging process, people can become more easily distracted and have difficulty with multi-tasking, however, they can still focus well on a single task.  Occasionally an older person might make a mistake when managing finances however generally these are minor.

People with dementia experience difficulty managing finances and completing everyday tasks such as meal preparation.  These activities rely on the ability to plan, sequence, problem solve and recognise symbols and numbers.  A person with dementia may become more confused when thinking through tasks and struggle to focus on a single activity.  Their decision-making skills are likely to be affected so they may take risky or inappropriate actions, for example, wearing warm clothing on a hot day.  Over time the ability to complete everyday tasks is affected.

4. Speech and Conversation

As we age, we might at times find ourselves forgetting a word or a name, but in time, we are able to recall this information.  We might lose track of a conversation if we are distracted but again, usually can respond appropriately when focused on the conversation.

For those living with dementia, difficulties with speech and conversation include forgetting simple words and substituting words when unable to think of the correct word.  Following conversations even when there are no distractions is challenging and in fact, the person may struggle to participate in a conversation.  People with dementia will gradually find it more difficult to follow a storyline whether in a TV show, movie, or book.

5. Vision and Perception

This refers to how we understand what we are seeing. As we age it is not uncommon for our vision to change as a result of cataracts or other eye diseases.  For the person living with dementia making sense of what they see is affected.  They might see patterns or reflections as an object; it is not uncommon for a person with dementia to perceive a black mat as a hole in the ground.  Judging distances on stairs becomes more challenging, and shadows can be misinterpreted.  All of this can be very confusing and distressing for a person with dementia.

6. Mood and Behaviour

It is not uncommon for older people to sometimes be reluctant to engage in social activities, for example for an older person with a hearing impairment, social gatherings can be challenging.  Feeling low or anxious at times is normal as is being irritated when routines are disrupted, however, generally older people can adapt to change.

A person living with dementia will often withdraw socially and lose interest in previously enjoyed activities.  They may experience feelings of sadness and anxiety more frequently.  Becoming upset in familiar environments or with familiar people can also indicate that there are changes happening in the brain due to dementia.  Changes in mood can occur suddenly and without any clear reason.  It is not uncommon for a person with dementia to lose initiative, requiring prompts and encouragement to participate in activities.

It is important to remember that any changes out of the norm may not be due to the onset of dementia.  Some conditions can mimic dementia, these include depression and other medical illnesses such as hormone disorders, nutritional deficiencies, strokes, and infections, so it is a good idea to seek advice from your medical practitioner.  These conditions may be treated resulting in a reversal or improvement in symptoms. In addition, the different types of dementia have different warning signs, in this blog post, we have focussed on those changes that occur in the two most common types of dementia – Alzheimer’s Disease and Vascular Dementia.


Dementia is not a normal part of the aging process. It can be very frightening for both the person who has dementia and their loved ones. The good news is that there are ways to support people living with dementia and help them to retain as much independence as possible. Read our blog post “Dementia: What is it and How to Support your loved one”, for more information on some of the common symptoms of dementia and what you can do to help. If you would like more information or have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.


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