Anxiety, depression and dementia

A diagnosis of dementia and its effects on a person’s life can have a big impact on their mental health. We share advice on spotting the signs of anxiety and depression and what you can do to help.

What are anxiety and depression?

Anxiety is a feeling of fear or unease. Everyone experiences it at times, but if it becomes too intense, it can get in the way of everyday life.

Symptoms include:

  • a feeling of being out of control
  • a sense of dread
  • heart palpitations
  • sweating
  • headaches
  • changes in appetite
  • poor concentration
  • difficulty sleeping
  • panic attacks

Depression is when low mood and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness are persistent for long periods of time.

Symptoms include:

  • continuous low mood/sadness
  • low self-esteem
  • tearfulness
  • feelings of guilt
  • irritability
  • loss of motivation
  • finding little enjoyment in life
  • feeling anxious
  • difficulty sleeping/sleeping too much
  • changes in appetite
  • lack of energy
  • low sex drive
  • thoughts of self-harm or suicide

People may experience anxiety and depression at the same time.

Why might a person with dementia feel anxious or depressed?

There are many reasons why a person with dementia might experience depression and/or anxiety, including:

  • fears about the future
  • frustration about things they can no longer do
  • worries about memory loss, personality changes and other dementia symptoms
  • feelings of being a burden on family and friends
  • worries about employment and finances – particularly if the person has young onset dementia (dementia in people aged 65 and under)
  • changes in roles and relationships
  • withdrawing from social contact/loneliness
  • loss of independence
  • stigma and discrimination
  • difficulty communicating
How does anxiety and depression affect a person with dementia?

As some of the symptoms of anxiety and depression can also be associated with dementia, they may be put down to the person’s diagnosis and overlooked as separate issues.

Similarly, the early symptoms of dementia, like poor concentration, sleep disturbance and changes in mood and behaviour, can sometimes be misdiagnosed as depression.

This can result in a delay in diagnosing dementia and receiving the right treatment and support.

People sometimes assume that someone with dementia is unable to experience anxiety or depression, but this is not the case – it is thought that emotions remain intact even though they may not be able to communicate them.

These difficulties with communication, and the isolation and frustration they can cause, may worsen the person’s anxiety and depression.

They may find it hard to keep up with socialising and other activities that they usually enjoy, leading to loneliness and low mood.

It’s a good idea to look out for the physical signs of depression or anxiety, as listed above, as they may indicate there is a problem the person is unable to express verbally.

A person with dementia experiencing anxiety or depression may pace up and down, fidget or become agitated. They might follow someone they live with around the house, seeking reassurance, and may want to go to a place they feel safe.

They might also find it hard to control their emotions due to the effects of dementia on the brain – for example, they might become excessively angry if they are unable to do something, or cry uncontrollably about something that would not usually upset them.

Getting a diagnosis of depression or anxiety

It is important for the person with dementia to see their GP if there are concerns about depression or anxiety. In some cases, the GP may refer the person to a specialist such as a psychiatrist/old age psychiatrist.

Seeking professional help is essential if the person has thoughts of self-harm or suicide, so you should make an urgent appointment with their GP or call 111 for advice.

If you believe the person is in imminent danger of harming themself, you should take them to A&E.

Supporting a person with anxiety or depression

These tips may help the person with dementia to manage their anxiety or depression:

  • encourage them to take gentle exercise
  • talk to them about how they are feeling and ask what you can do to help
  • encourage good sleep habits – see Sources of support, below, for advice
  • tell family and friends (with the person’s permission, if possible) that they have dementia and are experiencing anxiety/depression so they can offer support
  • encourage them to engage in activities that they usually enjoy, like exercise, gardening, craft, singing, dancing and volunteering
  • look for dementia or mental health support groups that meet in person or online
  • spend time sharing photos, memories, favourite music, films or books
  • ask their GP about talking therapies that may help – although these may be harder for the person to engage in as dementia progresses
  • ask their GP if medication like anti-depressants may help – but do not use any over-the-counter remedies without consulting the GP or pharmacist
  • try introducing a doll or soft toy that the person can ‘care for’ – this may make them feel more purposeful and less isolated
Sources of support

If you would like to speak to a dementia specialist Admiral Nurse about anxiety and depression or any other aspect of dementia, call our free Helpline on 0800 888 6678 (Monday-Friday 9am-9pm, Saturday and Sunday 9am-5pm, every day except 25th December) or email helpline@dementiauk.org.

If you would prefer to pre-book a phone or video appointment with an Admiral Nurse, please visit dementiauk.org/get-support/closer-to-home.

Dementia UK information

Other useful resources

Counselling Directory
counselling-directory.org.uk

Mental Health Foundation
mentalhealth.org.uk

Mind
mind.org.uk

IAPT – self-refer to a psychological therapies service
nhs.uk/service-search/mental-health/find-a-psychological-therapies-service

Samaritans
116 123
samaritans.org

The Silver Line – conversation and friendship phone calls
0800 470 8090
thesilverline.org.uk

Download our Managing anxiety and depression leaflet

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How we can support you

Whether you have a question that needs an immediate answer or need emotional support when life feels overwhelming, these are the ways our dementia specialist Admiral Nurses can support you

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Publication date: September 2020
Review date: September 2022