As the holidays offer the opportunity to reunite with seldom-seen relatives, some people may notice changes in their older family members. Is what you're seeing just normal aging, or is it something more serious?
It depends. According to Kelly Parsons, LCSW, of the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging at the University of Kentucky, there's a fine line between normal brain aging and dementia, but some rules of thumb can help you know what to look for.
"For example, we all remember times when we've forgotten someone's birthdate -- perhaps even our own child's," she says. "But someone who can't remember their own birthdate might be suffering from dementia."
Parsons also notes that you should be alert if your loved one is using inappropriate names for things -- like calling a wristwatch a "time-telling bracelet."
"Oftentimes holiday gatherings revolve around meals," she adds. "Watch your loved one carefully. Do they seem not to recognize food that's been a long-held family tradition? Are they confused about directions for a favorite recipe? Is there a lot of moldy or expired food in the refrigerator? These can be signs of memory problems."
Mismatched clothing is amusing (everyone knows that uncle who wore plaid pants with a striped shirt), but stained clothes or clothes worn "out of order" -- such as a sweater underneath a shirt or blouse -- can be another tell-tale sign. Poor hygiene is also a red flag, as are large piles of unopened mail, especially bills.
If you're concerned about a loved one, contact their doctor, who can perform memory screens and provide a referral to a neurologist for further testing if warranted.
"Most people -- and even some doctors -- throw up their hands, thinking there's nothing we can do to stop Alzheimer's disease," Parsons says. "While it's true there isn't yet a cure, there are medications that seem to alleviate symptoms and/or slow down the progression of the disease."
"It's crucial that you seek help early on in the process to take advantage of all the resources that can help you and your loved one."
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