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When Should You Worry about a Loved One’s Memory Loss?

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How much of memory loss is “a normal part of aging,” and how much should be cause for concern? That’s a question we hear frequently at AgingOptions and it’s one you have probably asked yourself if you have walked the journey of aging alongside a parent, spouse or other loved one. Because dementia is such a topic of concern among today’s seniors and those who love them, we found this recent article from Time magazine to be both helpful and important.

“Roughly 9% of Americans have dementia,” says Time, which the article defines as “a loss of intellectual function that is severe enough to interfere with day-to-day life.” The most common evidence of dementia is memory loss or confusion, but other manifestations can frequently appear including “poor hand-eye coordination, problems with tasks like cooking or operating a computer, or mood and behavioral changes ranging from depression to hostility.” In survey after survey, dementia (of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most widely-known form) is the health crisis seniors fear the most. Given this level of concern, then, we were intrigued to read one statement in the Time article from Dr. Paul Fishman, a professor of neurology at the University of Maryland Medical Center, who stated that “Dementia is very common, and in general it is under-diagnosed, rather than over-diagnosed.”

In other words, people tend to write off signs of cognitive impairment as “normal parts of aging” and may be too quick to dismiss the notion that mom or dad’s memory loss is evidence of something more serious going on.

So when should you as a loved one ignore some of these signs and when is it time for greater concern? “The number-one red flag a child or caregiver needs to watch out for is change,” says Time. “If someone is acting differently than they used to, that’s good reason for them to see a doctor for an evaluation, (Dr.) Fishman says.”  This change can appear in a variety of ways: you may notice that basic tasks your parent used to do now seem to be causing them more difficulty – for example, following a familiar recipe or balancing a checkbook. A loved one who has always been independent may start showing signs of difficulty with potentially dangerous activities like driving a car. We know of one woman who realized her mother’s cognitive decline had taken a more serious turn when the family arrived for a holiday meal only to find the mom (and most of the food) completely unprepared – a major (and ominous) change from her typical behavior. If you’re concerned about a parent, this may be a good time for you and your siblings to compare notes, asking “How does dad seem to you?” or “Do you notice anything different about mom’s behavior lately?” If you’re perceiving a change, chances are others are, too, and it’s probably time for a professional evaluation.

It’s important not to wait to get that evaluation, says Time magazine. “Even if your parent is relatively young—in her 50s or 60s—don’t ignore memory slips or new symptoms. While rates of dementia really balloon once a person reaches age 80, about 10 percent of dementia cases are diagnosed by age 65—and for some, the loss of function sets in earlier.” The article says that, if the diagnosis is dementia, the most common cause will be Alzheimer’s disease (in about 60 percent of dementia cases). But one of the chief reasons to get your loved one in for a medical evaluation early on is that some of the conditions that can cause cognitive problems are actually treatable and, in many cases, reversible. Says the Time article, “These include everything from an undiagnosed stroke to a thyroid condition or medication side-effects. This fact—that many cases of dementia are caused by fixable, non-Alzheimer’s sources of impairment—may be a good way to coax a parent into visiting a doctor for an assessment, which can be a tricky conversation for kids and caregivers.”

The challenge of having such an awkward and potentially touchy conversation with your loved one may be the biggest impediment of all when it comes to getting an accurate diagnosis of the causes of cognitive decline. “Talking about dementia with a parent is often more difficult than spotting the warning signs,” says the Time article. This is made worse because dementia impairs a person’s insight, so “a loved one who’s struggling may not recognize his symptoms or acknowledge that there’s an issue.” This can make them dismissive, angry, even paranoid. Needless to say, the fear of this kind of hostile or suspicious reaction from a parent is enough to cause many adult children to avoid the topic entirely until the issue becomes too severe – or even too dangerous – to ignore.

One recommendation from the Time article, if you fear a hostile reaction from a parent with cognitive problems, is to call your mom or dad’s doctor to let them know about your concerns. The doctor may not be able to discuss specifics with you due to privacy restrictions, but he or she can be alerted by your call to perform an assessment and take appropriate steps at your parent’s next visit. “That evaluation will include some form of cognitive assessment—either quick or in-depth, depending on the person’s symptoms—and may also entail blood work or other tests to rule out non-Alzheimer’s factors,” explains Time.  “The most important message,” the article emphasizes, is “don’t dismiss memory problems or other symptoms as run-of-the-mill aging.” Even for a loved one in her 70s or 80s, “a loss of cognitive ability that interferes with function is not normal.” If your parent needs help, you can ensure they find it, and it’s essential that you do.

One place to begin is with a call to AgingOptions. By discussing your situation with us, we can make one of several referrals – for example, your parent will almost certainly benefit from hiring a geriatric physician to act as “quarterback” for their health care needs. Also called a geriatrician, these professionals are trained to work with seniors and to provide careful and accurate diagnosis. We also suggest you consider scheduling a family conference, conducted by our highly-trained AgingOptions professional staff, so that everyone – mom, dad and siblings – will have a clear understanding of future caregiving roles, obligations, and expectations, and a better awareness of your parents’ wishes.

Finally, we strongly recommend you join us soon for an AgingOptions LifePlanning Seminar with retirement expert Rajiv Nagaich. Invest just a few hours in one of these information-packed sessions and you’ll discover how finances, housing, legal, medical and family aspects of retirement can all be meshed together into one seamless plan – a LifePlan. This link will take you to our Upcoming Events page where you’ll find all the details plus online registration – and remember, there’s no cost or obligation. Protect your assets, retain your independence and avoid burdening those you love, with an AgingOptions LifePlan.

(originally reported at

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