It's the holidays — the time when many families separated by distance come back together again for visits. That also makes it the time of year when many children of senior adults notice that something's not quite right with their parent's memory.
Dementia can be insidious. It creeps up on people, sometimes so slowly that they don't notice the changes in their loved one's behavior or cognition.
An older woman living in Louisville might not perceive any change in her husband, for example. But, to an outside observer — an adult daughter, say, who lives in Colorado and sees her parents only at major holidays — the changes can seem immediately obvious.
Today, our Episcopal Church Home memory care experts asked us to share with you seven memory loss signs you might notice over the holiday, that show your elderly parent might need help.
1. Weight changes
Many people with dementia forget to eat meals. Some forget they've eaten and eat again. Severe weight changes — up or down — can therefore indicate an elder is losing his or her memory.
A large or sudden change can also indicate a range of other serious health problems. It's important, if you notice your older loved one has gained or lost a lot in a relatively brief period, that you encourage him or her to see the doctor.
2. Confusion or often misplacing items
Does your mother ask you how much sugar to put in her special peach cobbler, that she taught you from memory how to make when you were younger? Does she often come into a room, then stop and indicate she forgot why she walked in there to begin with?
Does your dad consistently have trouble remembering where he put his keys? Did you find them in the car, or still hanging in the front door?
At the holidays, especially with all the added bustle and stress, it can be difficult to tell if your older parent is just exhausted and frazzled, or beginning to lose his or her memory. It wouldn't hurt to consult the doctor, who would be able to perform tests.
3. Disheveled appearance or home
Your mother has kept her house spotlessly neat and tidy for the last 50 years. She's just as meticulous about her dress; you've never seen her looking less than dressed to the hilt for a family holiday gathering.
But this Christmas Eve, when you arrive for dinner, there are dirty clothes on the floor in the family room. The bathroom has no toilet paper. Your mom is wearing sweats and a pullover shirt that is misbuttoned.
Has she been depressed? Has she experienced a small stroke? Is there a problem with her medication?
Or is she just unmotivated for the first time in her adult life?
Any of those are plausible explanations. So is dementia. Either way, she should see her doctor, if you notice she forgetting to take care of the day-to-day tasks of daily living.
4. Poor hygiene
Dementia sometimes makes people forget to bathe or trim their nails. They don't brush their teeth or comb their hair. They wear the same dirty clothes day after day. They might even develop an unpleasant odor.
If you notice these signs in your parent, you should be concerned. An undiagnosed past stroke, clinical depression or an adverse medication reaction could be the cause. But so too could dementia.
5. Lack of coordination or motor control
Dementia doesn't just cause memory loss. It robs people of their ability to control their bodies.
You might notice your dad stumbles a lot, or shuffles as he walks. Your mom's hands might shake. Maybe she has difficulty opening a bowl of cereal, or folding linens.
If you notice these signs, you should talk to your parent about the changes you're noticing and urge him or her to see the doctor.
6. Excessively tired, sleeps a lot, or general lack of activity
Again, there are many potential causes of a dramatic drop in your loved one's activity level.
Your dad might sit around more than he used to because he's developed chronic pain in his knees and back. Your mom might be depressed and missing your late father at the holidays. Then again, the lack of activity or increased fatigue might be a sign, in either, of memory loss.
Some with dementia exhibit "sundowning": They tire easily over the course of the day and, by sundown, they're exhausted, show increased difficulty remembering things or controlling their emotions, and have more difficulty moving about.
7. Language difficulties and confabulating
Does your mom often forget a word she's trying to recall? Does your dad stumble over a word, then substitute a completely unrelated word and move on as if there were no problem?
Have you caught either one of your parents in a fanciful lie about something routine?
"Why didn't you answer your phone last night, Mom?"
"Oh, because Olive hid it."
"The dog hid the phone?"
"I don't know, maybe it was Bill."
Bill, your father, is deceased. Something's obviously amiss. This sort of behavior is called "confabulating," and it's a strong warning sign that an elder is losing his or her memory.
Keep a close eye out this holiday season for changes in your older loved ones' behavior.
If you notice these, or any other warning signs of dementia, you should speak up.
Don't be afraid to approach your parents openly and honestly. If they resist seeing the doctor, ask them to do so, "just to get the 'all-clear,' so I won't worry." You'll find the softer approach to talking about your loved one's memory loss often works best!