So, Is it Memory Loss or Memory Disorder?
At some point we all forget our keys or misplace our cell phones, and as we age these occurrences only seem to become more prevalent. While memory decline comes with common aging, differentiating between what is normal and what may suggest a potential condition requiring medical intervention is not always simple.
Fearing the Worst
As a geriatrician, I regularly see patients and their families struggle with the many problems associated with Alzheimer’s disease, including parent/child role reversal, caregiver burden, multiple physician appointments and medication management. One of the most distressing problems is witnessing a loved one’s memory loss, along with the fear of what a dementia diagnosis will mean moving forward.
What to Look For
Establishing a formal diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease — a type of dementia — is a complex process. If you suspect your loved one is suffering from memory decline more severe than that of normal aging, taking note of certain signs and symptoms can help guide whether it may be time to consult a doctor.
Noticeable changes in appearance, mood, behavior and personality are common red flags. Take note of any decline in grooming habits, such as having poorer hygiene and dressing inappropriately for the season. Look for abnormal behavior such as taking medication twice or paying bills multiple times. Other concerning behavior includes losing objects with the inability to retrace steps to find them and difficulty completing tasks which were familiar in the past.
Episodes of paranoia can accompany dementia, leading to mistrust and confrontation as sufferers perceive items to have been taken away or misplaced on purpose. Further mood changes such as anxiety, depression and social isolation without any prior history should be noted and monitored.
Much of the difficulty in diagnosing memory disorders lies in deciding between what is normal memory loss of aging versus a pathological process such as dementia. Keep in mind — signs and symptoms of note are frequently subtle, persistent and impact daily life activities.
Start the Conversation
Addressing the possibility of a memory disorder with loved ones can be a stressful event with the potential to become contentious if mishandled. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, acknowledging that you are suggesting they see a doctor because you are concerned for their health and well-being is a good way to open a dialogue.
When discussing the possibility of a visit to the doctor, be cautious to avoid focusing solely on the loss of memory. Bringing up instances of the loved one leaving the stove unattended or arriving at a destination without knowing how or why he or she arrived there can come across as a threat to independence. Instead, explain that by addressing the memory loss and by seeking a potential diagnosis early, you hope to prolong your loved one’s ability to live a high-functioning, independent lifestyle.
At the Appointment
Often the most difficult part of the journey is convincing a loved one to seek a doctor’s guidance and a formal diagnosis. When accompanying a loved one to the doctor, stay positive and continue to reinforce that you are there out of concern for their health.
Taking the doctor aside and sharing your concerns about the memory loss and what a diagnosis could mean can alleviate some of the pressure and tension from the appointment. At this stage, allowing the doctor to take the lead by approaching the topic and providing guidance on the next steps can hopefully remove at least a portion of the burden.