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Your Aging Parents: Dealing with a Parent’s Dementia Diagnosis

Posted June 07, 2022 in Articles

Author: Jeannie Fleming-Gifford

For the last seven years, I have navigated the world of dementia with my Mom. Specifically, vascular dementia, which was caused by a stroke that damaged blood vessels in her brain. There are also several types of dementia, not all of which are caused by sudden illness or events such as my Mom’s stroke.

Although there is no known cure for dementia, recognizing the symptoms and common concerns will help you support a parent who is diagnosed with this condition.

Your Aging Parents: Dealing with a Parent’s Dementia Diagnosis

What Is Dementia

What is dementia? The National Institute on Aging from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines dementia as “the loss of cognitive functioning — thinking, remembering, and reasoning — to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities.”

Though it is normal to forget where something is or take longer to complete a task, especially as we age, there are signals and signs that something may be more significant than a moment of forgetfulness.

Nancy Sutula, vice president of residential services at Menorah Park in Beachwood, says one of the most common concerns she hears from families is in regards to driving issues. For instance, when a parent shares that it “took them longer to get there, or they got turned around,” these may signal changes that are worth further investigation.

Significant and consistent changes in thinking, behavior and movement may be signs of dementia.

What do those changes look like?

Some examples of behaviors that have been documented to be related to dementia include:

  • Memory loss, poor decision-making skills, or confusion
  • Challenges with speech, understanding and expressing thoughts, or reading and writing
  • Getting lost or wandering in familiar areas
  • Challenges with finances such as handling money or paying bills
  • Repetition of questions
  • Use of unusual words to refer to familiar objects
  • Taking an abnormal amount of time to complete regular tasks
  • Loss of interest in daily activities or events
  • Hallucinations, delusions or paranoia
  • Lack of self-control
  • Lack of empathy
  • Loss of balance or other challenge with movement

Where to Start?

With many symptoms — that may or may not be dementia — and several different types of dementia, it can feel overwhelming when you are concerned about an aging loved one.

Sutula says that the best place to start is by making an appointment with your loved one’s primary care physician.

Use caution and kindness, and remember that this is no time for arguing with a parent. In fact, brain changes may be preventing a loved one from reasoning and talking calmly about the changes, which may be causing you concern.

One of the most common tests is the MMSE, or Mini Mental State Examination. This is an 11 question measure that tests five areas of cognition.

After the initial appointment with the physician, there may be referrals to specialists. These could include neurologists, psychiatrists or geriatric specialists.

Support for Your Parents

Health issues can be overwhelming to diagnose and work through at any age.

Sutula says it may be especially hard to see a once strong and independent parent show signs of decline.

How can you support your parent(s) if or when you believe symptoms may be pointing to an onset of dementia?

  • Keep calm and positive.
  • Be thoughtful but thorough whenidentifying the challenges that your parent is having which are cause for concern.
  • Finally, be proactive and work to have your parent assessed by a medical professional.

Sutula also recommends education and connections to resources in the community. Though this can feel like an overwhelming and even lonely journey, there are many who are navigating the same path. Work with and lean on local and national resources such as the Alzheimer’s Association.

The process of diagnosis may take time, and there are different degrees and types of dementia. Early diagnosis will provide an opportunity to explore resources and support, which will help both our parent(s) and ourselves maintain the best quality of living, even with a difficult diagnosis.

Sutula reminds us that as we care for our parents, be sure to take care of ourselves.

Jeannie Fleming-Gifford has a MA in family and consumer sciences with a specialization in child development and is the vice president of programming at Lakeside Chautauqua. She has spent the last seven years learning about dementia and wrote a memoir called “The Gift I Never Wanted,” which chronicles her mother’s journey living with vascular dementia.

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