Identifying Dementia Symptoms in an Aging Parent

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Dealing with dementia symptoms in your own parent can stretch the limits of your sanity. Sometimes you may not even notice the first symptoms of dementia -- the slow decline of your aging parent's memory. The symptoms of dementia may continue until your aging parent starts exhibiting signs of other mental disorders, such as paranoia or delusions, which frequently piggyback on the effects of senile dementia. These symptoms may keep reappearing, until you can't ignore them and you're forced to take action like I was. Hopefully, this article will help you identify dementia and other mental problems in your aging parents and help you deal with the problem by getting their condition assessed by a professional. My own mom taught school most of her life. She was highly organized and extremely independent. She read constantly and became quite adept at oil painting. At the age of 76 she moved closer to my sister and I, but her canvases and brushes never seemed to make it out of the moving boxes. I bought her a VCR for Christmas, hoping that renting movies could help her shake her newly-found disinterest in life. But the new VCR was never turned on unless I happened to visit with a movie in hand. It became, like the microwave I had gotten her a year earlier, another piece of unused technology. It never dawned on me at the time that my mom had stopped wanting to learn new things, or that this could mean that her aging mind was showing early symptoms of dementia.

Believing that Mom's depression was a result of her unhappiness with her living situation, my sister and I began a search to find her senior housing. We placed our hopes on a retirement community that offered a full-time social director to rescue her from the depressed mood we were fighting. The retirement home helped her find new friends and subdued the paranoia, but only temporarily. Soon she insisted we change her banking accounts. She accused the banks of stealing money from her safety deposit box. She also became absurdly paranoid about my brother-in-law, who she suspected, had a master key to her apartment. All missing items were blamed on this poor fellow. We never suspected that paranoia could be a symptom of dementia.

The amazing part of all this is that my sister and I continued right on with our lives, denying Mom's odd behavior while helping her change bank accounts and get new locks for her apartment. We just figured it was normal for our aging parent to become strange when she turned 80 years old. We never suspected dementia was taking her away from us.

Symptoms of dementia are insidious, because they start so slowly. Often they are mixed with periods of what appears to be normal behavior. So just when we thought she was showing symptoms of dementia, she'd return with what appeared to be complete clarity, asking us about our spouses and giving the usual motherly advice we had grown up with and trusted. Looking back, I can clearly see the progression of the disorder. But at the time, senile dementia sneaked in and stole Mom from us without a clue. Because of our busy schedules, hectic lives, and maybe a little denial, we didn't see it until it was too late.

There was also a strong fear going on. I remember thinking that if my mother was showing symptoms of dementia, I must be showing symptoms of dementia too. She was so close to me that I had a lot of her same thinking patterns. She dictated reality to me when I was growing up. I worried about this a lot. I really wanted her to be "normal" so I could feel normal. I didn't want anyone to find out my mom was acting crazy. I could just imagine everyone at work hearing the news and moving their fingers in circles around their ear saying "Ah ha! That explains it!"

So we took Mom to doctor after doctor trying to find a cure for her symptoms. Was it low iron, low zinc, or low potassium? They drew countless pints of blood trying to rule out what could be causing her behavior. But eventually, most of the doctors proved worthless in offering real help. Not one seemed to be able to tell us what was wrong. None of her five doctors could give us any advice that would help her. They all seemed to deny there was any problem. Fortunately, we met a geriatric counselor who advised us to take her to a local hospital for a geriatric evaluation. I wish we had done this evaluation five years earlier.

If your parent is acting strange and you're not getting results or a concrete diagnoses from your doctor, consider a geriatric counselor. You can find them in the yellow pages or on the Web. The small amount of money you'll pay for their services will help you retain your sanity through the decisions you'll soon be facing. A geriatric counselor will also relieve you of a fair amount of guilt as you carry out the future decisions that become necessary when an aging parent develops dementia.

William J. Grote is the author of the book "Helping Your Aging Parent -- A Step-by-Step Guide". William cared for his aging mother and made plenty of discoveries along the way. Hopefully his book can help you down the road of care giving -- which for many of us who survived the 60's and 70's, may be a completely new experience.

You can download a free checklist "Warning Signs of Dementia and Mental Illness" to help you identify unusual behavior in aging parents at http://www.boomer-books.com