More than 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, and this number is projected to rise to nearly 13 million by 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Alzheimer’s disease is one of a group of disorders known as dementia. In Alzheimer’s, nerve cells are affected in areas of the brain responsible for speech, thought, memory and reason. As the disease progresses, the person eventually loses the ability to carry out normal daily activities.

It’s heartbreaking to watch someone you love struggle with memory loss from dementia. Facing the unknowns and unpredictability of dementia can take a toll on families and caregivers. Knowing what to expect as the condition progresses can help you mentally prepare for challenging behaviors and cope with your own feelings of grief, loss, stress and sadness. You’ll never be ready for the devastating effects of a loved one’s memory loss, but gathering information and building a network of support can help you prepare for the changes ahead.

What to Expect When a Loved One Is Diagnosed with Dementia

All forms of dementia are progressive, which means the structure and pathways of the brain become increasingly damaged over time. Symptoms may include problems with memory, thinking, problem solving and language, as well as changes in emotions, personality and behavior. Symptoms may be mild at first and get progressively worse for a span of time, usually over several years.

Different types of dementia affect the brain in different ways, and since the condition doesn’t follow the same patterns or time frame in each case, every experience with dementia is unique. The speed at which dementia progresses depends on the type of dementia, a person’s age, and other long-term medical problems affecting their health (e.g., heart disease or diabetes). Alzheimer’s disease tends to progress more slowly than other forms of dementia, especially compared to vascular dementia, which can occur suddenly after a stroke. Some people remain independent for years, while others need support very soon after diagnosis. A person with dementia usually needs more help as the condition progresses, and it’s likely that they’ll eventually need 24/7 care.

Stages of Dementia

In general, there are three stages of dementia that people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia commonly experience, including early-, middle- and late-stage dementia. Even though your loved one may experience dementia symptoms in different ways, it helps to learn more about what to expect.

Finding the Support You Need

If a loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. Connecting with others in support groups can help you learn ways to adapt and cope in changing circumstances. Through dementia education, you can identify resources to meet your and your family’s needs and plan for the future after a dementia diagnosis.