The Earlier, the Better

Dear Family Caregiver,

Forgetting where one lives, getting lost in traffic, forgetting how to write checks or pay bills — these may be signs of something more serious.

When I was growing up, I used to hear people “joke” that they had Alzheimer’s when they forgot something. As an adult now, I know that Alzheimer’s is NO JOKE or laughing matter. It is a serious neurological disease that leads to cognitive, emotional, and physical decline. Having Alzheimer’s disease is NOT a normal part of aging.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, but just one of about eighty-four different kinds of dementia. This disease accounts for sixty to eighty percent of dementia cases. It is also not just a disease of old age. It can appear in people as young as forty or fifty. Scientists tell us that brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s may begin fifteen to twenty or more years before the first symptoms occur, ­even before the person notices a problem.

Financial skills, like writing checks, maintaining bank statements, paying bills, begin to deteriorate in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The earlier your loved one gets a diagnosis from a professional who specializes in memory disorders, the earlier your family can make interventions. This leads to a better outcome of care for your loved one. It gives you and your loved one time to deal with important planning, like finances and legal matters, durable power of attorney, and his or her wishes for future care. You have time to meet with an elder care attorney, and, if you choose, with a geriatric care manager. You must ensure that you or another family member will have legal authority to act on your loved one’s behalf as their “health care surrogate,” as well as through a properly executed “power of attorney.”

A medical evaluation may also identify other causes for the loss of mental powers that mimic dementia. These other conditions include: alcohol abuse, endocrine imbalance, brain tumors, infection, drug interactions, emotional problems such as depression, and emotional or physical trauma. Unlike Alzheimer’s, some of these conditions may even be cured.

Another good reason to get a diagnosis early on is that the earlier drug therapy can begin, the longer your loved one may retain some memory functions. The Alzheimer’s Association website notes: “Those with Alzheimer’s live an average of eight years after their symptoms become noticeable to others.” Depending on age and other health conditions, people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s can survive from four to twenty years.

In the case of my mother, obvious signs of her memory loss began in 1996, when she was seventy-eight years old. Mom was a master at “covering up” some of the early signs of her illness. In hindsight, we suspect the disease actually began years before. She was experiencing TIA’s (transient ischemic attacks) for about two years before her doctor recommended she get a pacemaker in 1996.  She went to a memory disorder clinic for formal testing in 2000, and lived until 2006. I will detail more about TIA’s, vascular dementia, and what Mom’s testing involved in future blogs.

PLEASE don’t hesitate to get a full memory screening, if you or your loved one show symptoms of memory loss. For more detail what those early symptoms are, check the Alzheimer’s Association website: http://www.alz.org. If you need help in what to say to get your loved one to go for testing, call the Alzheimer’s 24/7 HELPLINE at 1-800-272-3900, and speak to a professional who can coach you.

I was once a caregiver, like you. Your experience is unique to you and your family, but hopefully what I have to offer by way of suggestions may be helpful to you. Send me an e-mail, if you’d like, so that I can keep you in my prayers. I wish you peace, patience, and courage for your caregiving journey ahead!

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