Dealing with dementia symptoms:

Occipital lobe changes

Created date

September 27th, 2019
The occipital lobe is situated at the back of the head.

The occipital lobe is situated at the back of the head.

This is the fourth and final article in the series about how to deal with dementia symptoms that result from damage to particular parts of the brain. This month’s topic: the occipital lobe.

“Unlike the other three lobes of the brain, the occipital lobe seems relatively unaffected in Alzheimer’s disease,” says Cara Skrypchuk, director of memory support services for Erickson Living. “But some people’s disease process or injury may cause occipital lobe-related changes.”

Vision and perception changes

Located at the back of the brain, the occipital lobe’s main function is vision—specifically how you perceive and interpret what you see. Dementia-related damage can result in several changes related to these functions.

For example, someone may not recognize everyday objects. “Clothing, bathtubs, or toilets may not be perceived for what they are, or their purpose may not be understood,” Skrypchuk explains. “In addition, people with occipital lobe damage may have trouble following the movement of a person or object.”

Depth perception can also be altered, which can be risky when trying to get around. “You may see your loved one high-stepping over surfaces,” Skrypchuk says. “For example, if your room has both carpet and hardwood flooring, you may see them take an exaggerated step where the carpet meets the hardwood.” 

Skrypchuk notes that peripheral vision can change as well. “They may not be able to see objects on either side.” 

Illusions and hallucinations

Occipital lobe damage sometimes results in someone experiencing illusions, hallucinations, or both. “These are not the same,” Skrypchuk explains. “An illusion is a distorted perception—something may appear larger or smaller than it actually is or may appear to have abnormal coloring.”

“Hallucinations, on the other hand, are visual images that occur despite a lack of external stimuli,” she adds. “Someone thinks they see something that’s not really there.”

Coping strategies

Slow and careful movements can help your loved one follow along with an object’s purpose or understand what you are saying. “When speaking with someone with dementia, hold your palms outward, as this is perceived to be less frightening or intimidating,” Skrypchuk says. 

Because of difficulty discriminating small differences (such as color), use vivid colors on items such as plates, cups, and table tops. “This can help them discriminate among these objects and their use,” Skrypchuk says. “Examples of good colors to use are green, yellow, blue, or turquoise.”

A lack of depth perception can put your loved one at a high risk for falls and fractures. You may need to make some adjustments in your home, such as securing loose carpets and reducing clutter, and make sure someone is there to help them get around.

Having a lack of peripheral vision can mean someone is easily startled. “You should always approach someone with dementia straight on, not from the sides,” Skrypchuk says.

Dementia-related occipital lobe damage, although fairly infrequent, can result in symptoms that are especially challenging for caregivers. You can talk to a health care provider or find information on the Alzheimer’s Association website (alz.org).

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