We were lucky when my mom, then 94, decided all on her own not to drive anymore because her eyesight was so poor. But it was more difficult a year later when I looked in her pill box where she organized her medicine by day and discovered mistakes.
“Let me take care of that,” she said somewhat snappishly as she took it out of my hands—unusual for someone always very sweet.
Gaffes, forgetfulness and disorganization aren’t uncommon for any of us.
“It can be difficult for adult children to determine the differences between normal forgetfulness and dementia,” says Melissa Bohacek, communications manager and executive assistant for the Northwest Indiana Community Action Area One Agency on Aging and Community Action Agency (NWICA) in Crown Point. “There are good resources out there to help. AARP has an older driving quiz which is available online. We have a Creative Caregiving Resource Guide; it is a checklist for evaluating loved one’s homes—another consideration when planning to care for a parent or older adult. We recommend contacting your physician or the family’s medical provider when you start noticing changes in the older adult.”
People with questions can also call NWICA’s 211 number.
On their website, the Mayo Clinic describes seven warning signs indicative of whether our parents can take care of themselves, including how well they get around, if they’re losing too much weight and if they’re in good spirits.
The latter is very important, according to Lawrence Brewerton, a clinical psychologist and an adjunct professor of psychology at Indiana University Northwest who also works with the elderly in residential care settings. “The most common problem we have with older adults is depression," says Brewerton, who teaches a course on adulthood and aging. “Depression is very underrated in older adults. The things to look for are insomnia—always a clue in depression—changes in appetite, fatigue, do they talk about feeling down, have there been stressful life events like losing friends, or lack of social support.”
Forgetfulness is not necessarily a sign of dementia. "I misplace my keys all the time,” Brewerton says. “But when I find them, I know what to do with them.”
There is also a difference between depression and dementia. “Depression is 24 hours a day and is more generalized,” Brewerton says. “Dementia is much more intense in the evening. Whenever anyone sees anything with an older adult, get them checked medically.”
When working with aging adults, Brewerton recommends looking at options like adult day care to help provide a social component to their lives and, for caregivers, get respite care when feeling overwhelmed. “Try to involve them when any decisions need to be made,” Brewerton says. “State things in a way that makes it seem like it’s also their decision as well. When I work with patients, I establish contracts where they agree to try things like an activity. Contracts are good, because they feel an obligation then to exercise twice a week or join a group. Giving verbal praise is important. We all love to reminisce, so talk to them about their lives and what they’ve done.”
Forget the stereotype. Getting Alzheimer’s and dementia is not a normal progression of aging, Brewerton says. But it is more pervasive and getting more so.
“Unfortunately, many of my patients are getting younger and younger,” Brewerton says. “We have two generations who are not active and we need to start taking better care of ourselves.”