Q: I visited my mother over Thanksgiving, and I noticed memory changes that worried me. How do I know if she has real memory problems and may need more help?
A: It is not uncommon to notice changes over the holidays. Often, it has been a while since seeing the loved one in person, and thus, the changes you notice are more pronounced. Many families may be in the same situation right now, wondering if what they noticed is something that needs to addressed, and worrying about to how to have these discussions with family.
You may have only talked to your loved one on the phone this past year. Over the phone, it is easier to hide any memory issues or downplay any troubles they may be having. In person, it is more difficult to hide these changes. Follow your gut and know that if you feel something has changed, it is important to address it in case it is a sign of something more serious.
Keep in mind there are many other reasons a person may appear “off.” For example, the noisy room may make it difficult to hear and follow conversations. Stress or even lack of sleep can affect a person’s ability to recall words. Be sure to follow up on your concerns with an open mind to the idea that there could be many different causes.
Think about what you noticed your loved one doing that caused you concern. Was your mother having trouble finding items that she used regularly? Was she not able to follow a recipe that she could normally make easily? Or was the home not kept up the way it used to be?
Your main worry may be that she has dementia. One of the key signs of dementia is that the memory loss is disrupting daily life. The Alzheimer’s Association provides ten early signs of dementia that is useful to review and see what of these signs you saw in your loved one. You can find it here https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/10_signs
If you notice some of these signs in your loved one, then think through how to share your concerns in a gentle way. First, consider having a person who your mother trusts and often listens to for advice be the one to approach the conversation.
This person might be you, but it also may be another relative or friend who you can ask to be involved.
Whoever brings up concerns to your loved one should be mindful to do it alone in a comfortable and non-confrontational way. If your family often has discussions in a group, then that may work for you, but consider having the discussion one-on-one to avoid feelings that she was talked about behind her back.
The person who brings up the topic can start by reflecting what was noticed. For example, “I noticed you had trouble remembering relatives’ names at Thanksgiving, have you felt this was getting difficult for you?” or “You have not seemed like yourself lately, have you noticed any changes?”
Always come from a place of caring and support. Explain that there could be medication side effects, vitamin deficiencies or other physical problems causing issues. It is important to have medical advice to sort out the real problem. This may help with someone who is resistant to going to the doctor for fear of a diagnosis of dementia.
Ultimately, if there is a dementia diagnosis, it is important to ask what type of dementia, and get a better understanding of how to plan for future care needs. This also allows your loved one time to make their own plans and make sure their wishes are followed while they are still in control.
Be your loved one’s partner by showing them that you want them to live their best life. Offer to attend the doctor’s appointment with them and to help them figure this out together. Try to take the emotions out of the conversation and provide patience and time. The first conversation is only the beginning, so do not worry if it does not get resolved all at once. Remind yourself that by taking the first steps, you are doing something proactive to protect your loved one and show them how much you care.
Martha Shapiro can be reached at Senior Concerns at 805-497-0189 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org