It's normal for an older adult to forget where they put their keys, look all over for their glasses, then realize that they're wearing them, or have trouble remembering someone's name. But, there are times when memory loss can be really scary and concerning.
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If you're noticing changes in your parent's memory, or changes in cognitive function (this is a fancy term for the way the brain thinks, remembers, processes information, etc), it is really important that you keep track of specific examples that you notice.
For example, My mom got lost the other day driving home from a store that she's been going to for years. Or, My dad’s been leaving the stove on and burning food. Or, my mom has been rummaging through drawers and can never find what she’s looking for. Or, My dad was an accountant and now struggles with paying his bills. You get the idea! Imagine that you're a scientist and you have to give a report of your parent's behaviors. Write them all down.
Write down when you noticed these changes starting. Are the changes gradual (like has this slowly been getting worse over time)? Or, all of a sudden? Like one day your parent is fine and the next day they're confused. Did the changes occur with any falls or changes in medication? Did the changes occur with a big move, like to a new home or state? Or, after the death of someone close? Pay close attention to the timeline and any stressful situations or changes just before the memory loss or confusion started.
Let your parent know that you're concerned about them in a gentle and loving way. It can also help to gently share the specific examples of what you observed in item one above. Depending what is going on medically, they may not believe you or think you are making up lies about them. Don’t argue, just simply add their response to your list of observations in item one and ask if they'd be willing to be checked out by their doctor any way.
If your parent is able, ask them to make an appointment with their primary care doctor. If you think your parent might not be able to do this on their own, ask in a non-judgmental way if you can make the appointment for them and ask if you can attend the appointment with them. If your parent says no. Write your concerns in a letter and ask them to take the letter to the doctor with them, AND call, mail, or email your letter to the doctor. You can also ask if they'd be willing to have a friend or another family member to go with them to the doctor. This can be a good option if you live in another city.
It’s important for your parent to see the primary care doctor first because this doctor can run tests to see if there are any medical problems or vitamin deficiencies causing the memory problems. Bring or mail your written observations to the doctor and remember to include the specific examples and timeline from the first two items above. Tell the doctor that you're concerned and ask if they can help figure out what can be causing memory loss.
Sometimes something as simple as Vitamin B-12 deficiency, sleep problems, medication interactions, urinary tract infection (which is common in both older men and women) can be the reason, or it can be something more complicated, requiring more testing. If it is more complicated, the doctor can refer your mom to a neurologist or another specialist for more evaluation.
When you're at the doctor, don’t jump in and talk over your parent or undermine them. Allow your parent and their doctor to talk to each other first. It can be really helpful for the doctor to hear how your parent is talking and processing information. Plus, your parent needs to be able to trust the doctor. If you jump in too soon, it begins to chip away at the time they need to build their relationship and might make your parent less likely to bring you to future appointments. I hear every day from my patients that they're not gonna let their family member in their medical appointments anymore because their family member spoke the whole time.
If the changes occurred suddenly. Like one day your parent's fine and the next day they're confused, or delusional, like thinks they think married to a man from Kentucky who lives on a farm and are pregnant with triplets. Or super paranoid and afraid that bad things are going to happen, like someone is constantly breaking into her house and stealing her things... take her to an ER for evaluation. Or, even if their sleep pattern changes suddenly and they are more irritable than usual. This can be a sign of delirium- a serious medical problem that needs medical treatment right away.
That's all for today! Please know that caring for aging parents can be super stressful! You're not alone! I'm here to help!
I'm a Stanford trained, Board Certified Clinical Psychologist specializing with older adults and families! I'm an Assistant Professor at Emory University School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, and a staff Psychologist at the Atlanta VA Health Care System. I'm a mom of two little kids and a daughter to aging parents.
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