Changes in cognition frequently occur slowly and subtly, and may be hard to detect if you see a person with memory issues on a regular basis. Most older people fear becoming a burden, so they may work hard to appear their normal selves for family gatherings or visits to doctors. However, this strategy can last just so long. Family members struggle with how to broach the subject of memory loss with their loved one, getting them the help they need now, and preparing for the future. So, what can you do?
Start the conversation: “Mom, I see that you are having a hard time with some things around the house. I am very worried about you and I would like to go with you to your doctor, as it would make me feel better if I had updated information about your health.” Parents may take a different view of the offer of help if they feel it would make their kids less anxious. Tell them that you have read about things that can improve memory, or stop it from getting worse. Educate yourself about memory loss, learn about some of the reversible causes of dementia at sharpagain.org, and what strategies can be incorporated right now.
Ask your relative for permission to speak to their physician. If they refuse, many physicians will at least agree to listen to your concerns and request that cognitive testing be completed. Remember, this cohort of older people frequently holds physicians in high regard.
Patiently listen to your relative’s fears. It is scary for them that their memory is not what it used to be. Try to avoid “labeling” their condition (e.g. dementia or Alzheimer’s).
Try to stay as positive as you can by focusing on what they can do, rather than their deficits. Most importantly, never respond with anger. Sometimes dementia manifests itself in short term memory loss, and our loved ones ask the same question repeatedly. As a family member, we often have a hard time dealing with this. Our expressions, however, do not go unnoticed by those with cognitive issues.
Stay steadfast in your efforts, as gently as possible. You can try to bring up your concerns another day, but do not shy away from it. You might say, “you know Dad, I am doing my paperwork later, and I am happy to help you too.” Or “Mom, I am going to pick up some groceries, what do you need?
Above all, remember this is a great loss for both them and you!
Debbie Drelich is a licensed master social worker, Founder NY Elder Care Consultants LLC, and a board member of Sharp Again.
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