The majority of seniors do not have serious memory impairments, but, for some, “senior moments” are more than absent-minded forgetting. The National Institute on Aging identifies these signs of potentially serious problems:
- repeatedly asking the same questions;
- getting lost in familiar places;
- being unable to follow instructions;
- frequent confusion about the date and time, the identity of familiar people, or location;
- lack of concern for cleanliness or well-being, such as wearing dirty clothing, not bathing, and not eating properly.
If memory lapses or faulty judgment begin to have significant effects on a person’s daily life, then it is time to seek support. Enlist a medical doctor to help find the underlying causes. Your doctor will do memory testing and examine your medical history for clues. He may refer you to a neurologist who can perform more advanced brain and mental processing tests. Often, a senior with serious memory problems will not be aware of them, and the responsibility for getting medical help will fall to his spouse or children. It is tempting to downplay dementia symptoms, but if you notice the warning signs, there are real advantages to talking with your doctor sooner rather than later.
“People should pay attention to changes in their memory and thinking as soon as they notice them because there can be tremendous benefits to early detection and diagnosis, whether or not the cause is Alzheimer’s disease,” said Maria Carrillo, Ph.D., Alzheimer’s Association vice president of Medical and Scientific Relations. Carrillo says that one good reason to get checked is that there are several conditions that cause dementia, and some of them are treatable. Medication side effects, depression, poor nutrition, chronic alcoholism, infections, or other disease processes are possible contributors.
Early identification of Alzheimer’s Disease can improve the quality of life for those diagnosed with it. One chief benefit is that individuals who understand the progression of the disease cope with it better. Medications that slow the progression of Alzheimer’s are most helpful if they are started early. Early intervention also allows the senior and his family time to plan for care needs, financial and legal issues, and end-of-life decisions. These decisions are much harder to make, emotionally and practically, after the elder has lost the mental ability to participate. The Alzheimer’s Association’s website (www.alz.org) lists the “10 Early Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s”, and identifies available resources.
“Dementia” is really a term to describe symptoms, like memory loss and self-neglect. Alzheimer’s Disease is the #1 cause of dementia; #2 is vascular dementia, caused by large or small strokes. Vascular dementia may appear suddenly, and may worsen or improve over time. Other forms of dementia are Lewy Body Dementia, which can include hallucinations and muscle changes along with memory problems, Pick’s Disease and other frontotemporal brain disorders, and head injuries. Understanding the type of dementia will help you target the right treatments and know what to expect.
Jack Buck once said, “Things turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turn out,” but it is hard to advise people to look on the bright side of dementia. The loss of memory and identity can be brutal. But it is a fact that planning ahead and getting proper supports in place can make the process less overwhelming. A person suffering from dementia needs more than anything to feel that he is loved and know that he is not alone. When care needs are dealt with in advance, family members can focus on providing caring support to their elder, and to each other.