When is a Little Confusion a Big Problem: The Signs of Dementia Every Caregiver Needs to Know

mother-and-child.gifBy Deborah Bass, President of Bass Eldercare Resources basseldercare.com
Everyone forgets a name sometimes…and who hasn’t left the door unlocked once or twice? The temptation is so clearly there, when we begin to see changes in our loved one’s ability to remember things and think clearly, to excuse it away, to minimize the problem, to act as if there was nothing wrong at all. Alzheimer’s and Dementia are scary words, and often we shy away from even thinking about our loved ones facing these challenges. However, we can’t wish the effects of aging away, and early detection and action can make a tremendous difference in the quality of life your elder experiences.

Signs to Watch For

Keep your eyes open for the following. Bear in mind that the most telling symptom is always change itself – changes in behavior, housekeeping, and self care can all be indicators of a problem.

Losing Words
During conversations with your elder, do they forget or have a hard time thinking of regularly used words? This isn’t about recalling the name of anew store or the name of the countries that used to be the Soviet Union; this is the loss of everyday words like table, post office, car, medicine and so on. It’s especially important to note this if this is a change in your elder’s behavior: if your great-aunt has been calling everything “whatsit!” for the past thirty years, it’s not as telling as if that change is new and distressing to your elder.

No Head For Numbers

One of the earliest and most common signs of dementia is an inability to perform simple calculations, recall strings of numbers (such as a phone number or zip code that one knew before) or manage financial affairs. If it is now markedly more difficult or time consuming for your loved one to work with numbers, it’s worth noting.

Where Am I?

One of the most terrifying symptoms of dementia happens when an elder gets lost. Getting lost within a neighborhood, shopping center, or other well-known location is terrifying – but not all elders get lost at home. Tales of disoriented, confused seniors traveling miles from home are not uncommon. Watch for a change in behavior here: if your loved one suddenly starts staying home and avoiding favorite activities, it may be the fear of getting lost keeping them home. The isolation that results can be bad for your loved one’s emotional and physical health.

Starting the Conversation

There are few conversations as difficult to have as the one where you discuss memory loss with a loved one. Many times, your elder is well aware of the memory loss problem (although perhaps not the magnitude of the issue) and has been dreading the day someone brought it to his attention. They may feel afraid or defensive.

Knowing that ahead of time makes it easier to start the conversation from a place of understanding and empathy. It may take time to reach a point where your elder is even willing to acknowledge the issue. View the conversation as a continual process. Having support available for you and for them is essential: this is an emotionally taxing point in life, and we all need help at these times.

What You Need To Do If You See These Signs

Obviously, the first feeling many of us have upon discovering our elders may be experience dementia are distress and concern. What does this mean for our elders, and what does this mean for us? It takes time to answer these questions and work through the feelings that accompany them; time may be at a premium as your loved one’s changing condition causes safety concerns that can not be put on the back burner.

Meet with your loved one’s physician as soon as possible. Their input, especially about any underlying conditions that may be precipitating change in your elder’s condition, is absolutely essential. They are also ideally situated to refer you to the appropriate support agencies in your location. You may need to be proactive and ask for this information: it’s essential to start building your support mechanisms and learning what resources you have available.

Every one of us is different, and the challenges dementia offers are therefore especially unique. However, the approach to effectively managing life with dementia tends to follow a single route, full of communication, compassion, and consistency, in a supportive setting. It all begins with paying attention to the signs.


Deborah Bass, president of Bass Eldercare Resources, is an eldercare expert, providing families the experience, guidance, insight and resources they need to navigate the eldercare system to make the right choices for their aging parent or loved one. For more information about Bass Eldercare, please visit www.basseldercare.com.

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