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Most research on family members’ experience of dementia has focused on the time after diagnosis. Yet, once people reach clinical attention, families have already been living with the changes for some time. These pre-diagnosis experiences can influence later caregiving. We aimed to synthesize qualitative research exploring family members’ experiences of the pre-diagnostic phase of dementia to inform clinical practice.
We conducted a thematic synthesis of 11 studies that met our inclusion criteria following a comprehensive literature search.
An overarching theme, sense-making, captured the primary process that family members engage in throughout the pre-diagnostic period. Within this, four major analytic themes were extracted as central concepts in understanding family members’ experiences of the pre-diagnostic phase of dementia: the nature of change; appraisals of change; reactions to change; and the influence of others.
Relevant features of the family experience of dementia onset can be characterized within several major themes. These findings highlight the complex process of recognizing early symptoms of dementia for people living with this condition and their families. Our findings also provide the foundation for developing theoretical frameworks that will ultimately assist with improving recognition of dementia onset, clinical communication with family members, and interventions to reduce family burden.
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