It can be disconcerting to observe memory changes in an aging parent or loved one.
Noticing someone’s memory loss leaves you worrying. Worrying that your parent or older relative is developing Alzheimer’s or age-related dementia. Worrying that he or she isn’t getting the proper care to preserve memory. Worrying that your loved one might someday wind up in a dangerous situation and won’t be able to help him or herself.
"It’s scary to think your loved one might have Alzheimer's disease or another type of dementia," said Rush University Medical Center geriatrician Dr. Magdalena Bednarczyk.
"People experiencing memory changes often don't realize it. Or they know something is wrong, but they're reluctant to tell anyone. Either way, the problem isn't addressed and gets worse,” she said.
“Having the talk" about memory loss with your parent is never easy. Most experts on dementia and aging caution people against coming right out and confronting someone about their memory difficulties.
For one thing, it can quickly make your loved one feel uncomfortable or anxious. He or she might even feel threatened. For another, it’s too easy to jump to conclusions. Memory loss or confusion can be caused by many things. It might not be dementia at all.
You should carefully and calmly discuss the changes you’ve noticed. Here are four tips to make that conversation productive.
1. Plan out the meeting
A discussion about memory changes shouldn’t be rushed. And it shouldn’t be haphazard. You’ll want to have notes prepared in advance — mental, or written — so that you’ll address everything you feel like you should address.
You should also make sure that you have the conversation at a time when neither you nor your parent will feel rushed. This is a discussion that will require some time.
2. Have the conversation in private
Don’t take your parent out for coffee or dinner to have the talk. You might be interrupted, or your parent might worry that others could hear what’s being said. And neither of you will want to risk a public scene.
Instead, sit down at home, in the environment in which your parent will feel free to speak openly and express his or her emotions.
3. Choose your language carefully
Try not to come across as judgmental. Carefully note the specific instances in which you’ve noticed memory changes. And don’t make definitive statements.
Instead of saying, “Yesterday you didn’t remember if you’d taken your medicines,” try phrasing it as “When I asked you if you had taken your medicines yesterday, it seemed like you were a little confused. Did you feel that way?”
“We should think about moving you into assisted living,” might be better phrased, “What would you think about bringing a little more help onboard? I’d feel better if I knew you weren’t alone so often and knew you’d have help close by if you ever needed it.”
It’s important that your parent or loved one feel that he or she has a say in the decision-making process. You want to foster a conversation, not issue edicts.
4. Develop a plan . . . together.
Once you’ve addressed your concerns, what then? How can you ensure that your loved one gets memory care he or she might need?
Again, many factors can cause memory loss. Some aren’t permanent, so don’t automatically assume that you’re observing changes associated with Alzheimer’s, dementia, or aging. Your older parent or relative should first see his or her primary care doctor, to determine the cause of the memory loss or confusion.
It could be something as simple as a nutritional deficiency, an adverse effect of medication, or even a sleep disorder. It could also be something serious but easily treatable, like an infection or a neurochemical imbalance.
If Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or age-related memory loss is the diagnosis, though, you and your parent or loved one should work together to develop a plan of action.
Will your parent need to immediately move into residential memory care? Maybe not. Dementia’s progress isn’t predictable; some patients can safely continue aging in place for months or even years before they need to move into a memory care community like Marjorie P. Lee. Others may need memory care services right away.
You, your parent, and your parent’s medical care providers should all have input into the next steps. It’s important to make sure that your loved one feels like he or she has options. Download our Dementia Guidebook to help you start the conversation.