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Normal Age-Related Memory Loss versus Dementia

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As our parents age, it is natural that their abilities will change and decline over time.  So many people are unsure how to distinguish what is to be expected from something more ominous.  Certainly a memory loss may be an indication of a disease such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or some other dementia.  If so, there can be a benefit to having an early diagnosis so that treatment can begin.  But people are hesitant to alarm their loved one or make too big a deal of a normal age-related decline.  So how do you tell the difference?  Here are a few tips:

  1. Changes in Appearance.  With declining mental status, you may notice changes in appearance of your parent.  They may stop bathing.  Dad may neglect to shave, or mom may stop using makeup.  They may always wear the same outfit.  Maybe they don’t bother to comb their hair or clean their glasses.  This may be happening because of confusion about the steps involved in hygiene.  Routines that used to come easily may now confuse Mom or Dad.  You know your parent best and are in a good position to see if there is significant change in appearance.  If so, it could be a warning sign to seek medical advice.
  2. Loss of weight.  Severe dementia may cause your parent to lose weight but there could be other causes. Forgetting to eat may be the most likely reason.  But your parent may be getting lost on the way to the grocery store, misplacing credit cards, or having them cancelled because your parent forgot to make the payment.  Often a combination of these factors may make the process of shopping for and preparing and eating food feel too overwhelming.  You parent may simply try to survive on what he or she has.  If you do notice a sudden unexplained weight loss, you will need to engage your parent in a conversation about meals and grocery shopping.  From a safety point of view you should also determine whether your parent is at risk of cooking related injuries including burns, or leaving the stove on etc.
  3. Medication issues.  Are you noticing extra medicine around, or is your parent experiencing medical symptoms from not taking the proper medication, such as suddenly increased blood pressure or elevated blood sugar?  Or maybe they are over-medicating, always running short of pills near the refill date.  This may be a sign that they forget they already took that day’s dose and took another dose by mistake.  Either way, over or under medicating can be hazardous.
  4. Starting to get lost.  If your parent is wandering or getting lost on routine routes this is a primary sign of dementia.  When you try to talk to your parent, he or she may be unwilling to discuss it out of fear or shame.  Or their memory loss may cause them to be too confused to fully comprehend the situation.  Try to visit your parent at a different time of day to see if they are wandering or getting lost.  Or ask neighbors to call you if they see anything out to the ordinary.
  5. Agitation.  Memory loss can be emotionally stressful.  If your parent seems to be a little off, or gets easily angered, or begins lashing out, your parent may be experiencing memory loss.  Often, memory decline will cause your parent to accuse family members and friends of stealing, as an explanation for misplacing things.  If your parent accuses you of stealing, rather than take it personally, it may be time to call his or her doctor.
  6. Depression.  The aging process, medications, or a number of other reasons may cause depression.  If you start to notice signs such as withdrawing from activities formerly enjoyed, interacting with others, and increased isolation it may be time to talk to your parent and seek medical help.

If you see any of these symptoms in your parent, the first step is to have a conversation.  Lay out your concerns and be specific in what you noticed to make you concerned.  Make sure their environment is safe.  Check on them more often.  After this, speaking with mom or dad’s doctor will provide you with guidance in getting him or her the appropriate memory care.

Our office is here to help you navigate the legal issues related to seeking and covering the cost of memory care.  Please call at 239-434-8557 for a free telephone consultation to see if you might benefit from a meeting with one of our attorneys.