The Danger Of Your Aging Parent Covering Up Dementia

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The signs are subtle at first. The brain-destroying disease that creeps up unannounced and steals your loved one comes in disguise. “Maybe he’s just getting old”, you tell yourself.

Your aging parent may have noticed being unable to remember things for some time. Dad will cover it up by changing the subject, finding some other words to replace the ones he can find, or just stop in the middle of a sentence.

Mom will insist she’s fine. She knows she isn’t but doesn’t want you to find out. She’ll do anything to keep her memory loss a secret. She fears you’ll put her in a home. To her, that’s a death sentence.

No one has yet to develop a simple test for Alzheimer’s or other dementias. Blood tests are in the works, but not here yet. Brain scans and MRI’s don’t tell us exactly who has Alzheimer’s and who doesn’t. They only give some clues. Neurologists make educated guesses. Primary care physicians do the same.

Here’s what’s important: it doesn’t matter if you have a diagnosis for your aging parent or not. It matters how your aging parent functions. It matters how you deal with what you see.

If your aging parent or loved one is showing persistent memory loss and starting to mess up the basics of life, it’s a warning you should not ignore. It’s more than a “senior moment”.

Here’s an example. A friend, Jaclyn, asked me for some information about her father, age 86. Aging is my field and advising is what I do for a living. Dad’s a brainy guy, a mathematician in his pre-retirement years. She’s noticing changes, which her mom is covering up. He can’t keep track of their finances any longer. Jaclyn knows this isn’t the Dad she’s used to.

Mom just steps in and does what Dad is forgetting. He forgot, for instance, how to make coffee. He’s been making coffee for decades. He forgot the steps. He didn’t remember them later. Is this a “normal” part of aging? He got lost driving home. Is that “normal” because he’s 86? It isn’t. Both of these memory issues are signs of trouble brewing.

Dad refused to try a new card game, something he’s always loved to do in the past. He is having more and more trouble learning any new information, say nothing of keeping track of the information he already knows.

Jaclyn wants to help, but is afraid to bring up the subject of what she sees. Mom will just deny a problem and say Dad is fine, just getting old.

Does it matter whether Dad goes to see a neurologist? Yes. At least that can help sort out the behavior that is not what the family is used to seeing and rule out various causes. Medication interactions, infections, stroke, and even dehydration can cause changes in brain function and behavior. It’s good to find out possible reasons for the memory problems and learn whether they can be treated.

A doctor generally won’t diagnose Alzheimer’s Disease unless there is enough evidence from testing and examining a patient to give the physician reasons to do so. There’s no one test to tell you if your aging parent has it or not. We get clues and doctors draw reasonable conclusions from them, but it’s not a precise thing.

Regardless, if your aging parent is showing the signs Jaclyn’s father is showing, you can take better control of how you handle the problem by acting on the signs rather than ignoring them. You can be sure if Dad is forgetting how to get home while driving, that his driving days should come to an end. That is definitely worth talking to the doctor about, as Dad may need help facing the enormous consequences of losing the ability to drive.

If there is no official diagnosis other than “early dementia” or “mild cognitive impairment”, it’s not a signal to the family that everything is ok and no one needs to plan ahead. Rather, it’s time to take a look at Dad’s future. In advising Jaclyn, I gave her a list of a few things to check into now, rather than wait for a crisis.

Here’s Jaclyn’s 4 item beginning “to do” list:

1. Persuade Dad to get a checkup from a reliable MD, preferably a neurologist who deals with aging patients. You need information. If there are symptoms of dementia, you need to find out what’s going on. If other conditions are in play, appropriate care may make a difference. If you have to conspire with the doc in advance, do it.

2. Locate and update all estate planning documents.
Work with your parents on this. Trusts, wills, durable powers of attorney and health care directives are the most important ones you need to review. It might have been years since anyone looked them over. Urge your parent to see an estate planning attorney. Tax laws change, state laws can vary. Some aging parents have never actually gotten the necessary legal papers together. The time may come when Dad is no longer competent to sign anything. Waiting until “the right time” is not good strategy. It can be too late before you know it.

3. Plan ahead for Dad’s possible care needs.
Who would look after him if Mom could no longer do this? He may go downhill in the future. If he does have dementia, it won’t remain the same over time. People get more dependent on help with their daily needs. Help is not free. Some source of payment for help with daily care should be in the plan.

4. Plan on how to discuss Dad’s situation with all family members.
If Dad has memory problems now, everyone in the family will eventually be involved in the situation. Siblings may need to share caregiving duties. Some may need to make financial contributions. Taking care of both parents as they age is no longer rare in families. An honest conversation about who can do what, and who is willing to help aging parents can go a long way toward avoiding resentment and conflict later on. Take the first step. Be the leader. Someone has to do this, and it isn’t always an aging parent.

You don’t want to be the one lulled into a false sense of security because no one has officially diagnosed your aging parent with a specific kind of dementia. It doesn’t matter. Trust your own eyes and ears. If your gut tells you there’s something wrong here with your loved one, there probably is something wrong. Jaclyn already knows something is brewing with her Dad. She’s being proactive and I applaud her.

You’re not alone if you have a parent with memory loss. Millions of people are facing this every day. They find a way to manage it, and survive and you will too. Be smart. Look down the road. Stand tall and do this last part of being a grown child of your parent. Take a few basic steps to protect your aging parent and yourself and you will get through it without unnecessary stress.



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