I was having coffee with a friend when another woman came over to say hello to her. We were not introduced, and when they finished their brief conversation, my friend turned to me and said “I’m so sorry I did not introduce you. I can never remember her name. I think I have Alzheimer’s Disease.”
Now, while I am certainly not an expert on Alzheimer’s Disease, I do know that it is not something to be minimized, especially since I recently learned that it is the 4th leading cause of death in people over age 65. But, people are terrified and are using Alzheimer’s Disease as a synonym for any lapse of memory, just like those of us of a certain age called every photocopy a Xerox.
After some gentle questioning, I (and she) were pretty comfortable with the fact that what she was experiencing was a normal part of getting older, no differently than needing glasses, having difficulty learning something new, or walking more slowly. These are usually not serious problems.
So, what can cause memory loss and when should we worry? Sometimes, stress and anxiety. Or, the memory loss could be a side effect of some medications, a vitamin deficiency, dehydration, infection or stroke. Most of these are treatable. Or, yes, it can be a form of cognitive impairment or dementia, including Alzheimer’s Disease. According to the National Institute on Aging, dementia is a group of symptoms caused by certain diseases or conditions (like Alzheimer’s) that include the loss of thinking, memory and reasoning skills to the extent that it seriously affects a person’s ability to carry out daily activities.
You, or a relative or friend may realize that they are having difficulty remembering things. They may try to cover it up by changing the subject, finding some other words to replace the ones they can’t remember, or stop in the middle of a sentence when they lose their train of thought. They want to keep memory loss a secret because they are afraid of what it might mean.
What is important is how the memory loss affects daily functioning. If there are persistent signs of memory loss that affect normal daily activities do not ignore them. It’s probably more than a “senior moment” and they should see a physician.
If there is no diagnosis other than “early dementia” or “mild cognitive impairment”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is okay and there is no need to think about the future. As memory loss progresses, there may be a time when your loved one is no longer considered competent. Waiting until “the right time” is not a good idea as it can be too late before you know it. Do not have a false sense of security because your spouse or parent has not received a diagnosis of a specific kind of dementia. It doesn’t matter. Trust your own eyes and ears. If your heart is telling you there’s something wrong with your loved one, there probably is something wrong.
A person with memory loss may also be a target for scams and other types of abuse. Often the first sign is a loss of financial skills, like balancing a checkbook or managing their money. They may become less careful about checking their bank account statements or paying bills. They may complain that money is missing from their bank account or that someone is stealing from them.
How can you help? Get involved in small ways while they are still healthy. You can let them know you are available for assistance and advice, and make routine tasks easier for them. All of this will make it easier for them to accept your help when bigger issues arise.
And, as I said good- bye, I got a promise from my friend that she would see her doctor immediately if her memory got worse or any of us noticed other changes of concern.