“Should We Be Worried About Dad’s Memory?”

Family at Thanksgiving

Every year, the family gathers at Mom and Dad's place for Thanksgiving. Some family members live nearby, while others fly in for the occasion. This year, while the adult children are putting away the leftovers, they share some concerns. Dad seems to be forgetting things. Mom covers for him, but she seems stressed. Could Dad be developing Alzheimer's disease?

November is Alzheimer's Awareness Month, and November also marks the beginning of the holiday season. Thanksgiving, the first of these celebrations, is a time when many families are getting together for the first time in months. Senior service agencies report that they get more calls after the holidays, as family realize that older loved ones may be suffering from memory loss.

Studies show that family and friends are often the first to spot the early, sometimes subtle, signs of Alzheimer's disease. They know their loved one's "normal." They know which signs represent genuine changes in their loved one's thinking and memory, and which things are "just Dad."

It's not always easy to know which symptoms are normal changes of aging and which could mean Alzheimer's or other dementia. We all experience changes in memory as we grow older. But which ones are of concern? Here are signs to look for:

  • Repeating stories, or asking the same question over and over.
  • Forgetting the month or year.
  • Unable to recognize friends and family.
  • Poor judgment, such as in financial decisions.
  • Unable to balance the checkbook and pay bills.
  • A decline in hygiene, grooming and housekeeping.

If you notice one or more of these signs, prompt medical evaluation is so important! If your loved one balks at consulting the doctor, they might be more willing to make an appointment if you share with them that often, memory problems are caused by something other than dementia. Conditions that mimic Alzheimer's disease include:

Side effects of medications. Seniors take a lot of prescription and nonprescription drugs. Alone or in combination with other drugs, a drug can cause confusion and personality changes. Your loved one should report these side effects, and have their medications reviewed by the doctor or pharmacist.

Depression. Depression and dementia actually share many symptoms, such as forgetfulness and an inability to focus. Symptoms of depression are often much improved with counseling, lifestyle changes and, in some cases, medications.

Thyroid disease. When the thyroid gland produces too little or too much thyroid hormone, memory loss and confusion may result. A simple blood test can reveal a thyroid disorder. Most types of thyroid disease are easily treatable.

Malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies. When seniors don't eat well, their thinking and memory can suffer. Even if they seem to be eating enough, they still may have trouble absorbing certain vitamins from food. If the deficiency goes untreated, it can lead to symptoms of mental confusion, uncertainty and slowness.

Dehydration. As we grow older, the mechanism in our brain that tells us we are thirsty sends out a weaker signal, so seniors may drink less water than is needed for good health. Some heart patients are on a restricted fluid regimen. Other seniors try to limit fluid intake because of fear of incontinence. Dehydration symptoms, including disorientation and lethargy, can be similar to those of dementia.

Infections. Some viral and bacterial illnesses, most notably urinary tract infections, can cause symptoms that look a lot like dementia, including delirium, confusion and hallucinations.

Once these causes are addressed, the cognitive effects may completely disappear.

If the diagnosis is dementia

Yes, there is the temptation to be in denial, or to withhold the information from your loved one. A July 2018 study from Johns Hopkins Medicine found that of all older adults with probable dementia, nearly 60 percent either had not been diagnosed, or weren't told of their diagnosis. "There is a huge population out there living with dementia who don't know about it," reported study author Dr. Halima Amjad. "The implications are potentially profound for healthcare planning and delivery, patient-physician communication and much more."

Early diagnosis clarifies things, explaining behavior changes and helping the senior and family understand what has been going on. It allows for the best treatment, and lets the family plan for the future with the fullest possible participation of their loved one. It raises the odds that the family will be able to access the highest quality of care, whether that is a memory care facility, in-home memory care or other support. Many families have had the experience of helping a senior loved one move to an assisted living community, only to have to move their loved one again when the facility can no longer meet their loved one's care needs — a disruptive situation for a person with dementia. Better to have a diagnosis so the family can select a place that will offer the right level of care even as their loved one's needs change.

And today, there are many dementia-friendly programs in our communities — art programs, exercise classes, music events, support groups and gatherings, and many other offerings that can help your loved one maintain the highest possible quality of life. Being in denial could keep your loved one from accessing them.

What's the next step?

Find some planning tips in "10 Things to Know Right Away When a Loved One Is Diagnosed With Alzheimer's Disease," which appeared in the July 2018 issue of the Caring Right at Home online newsletter.

For information on topics related to home care and healthcare, visit our Home Care and Healthcare Advocacy group on LinkedIn

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.