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Don’t Deny or Excuse the Personality Changes that may signal Alzheimer’s

Posted Aug 07 2011 11:43am
08/07/2011 By Leave a Comment

My Mom was a girlie-girl. She stood 5′ 2″ with ivory skin, blue eyes, permed- blonde curls and a constant smile. Mom didn’t smoke or drink or abuse her good health. Even into her 70′s, she ate an apple every day, swallowed a vitamin every morning and weeded a gorgeous Rose garden with agile fingers. People who knew her, loved her because she had a friendly personality and sweet disposition. I believed Mom’s mellow manner had contributed to her constant good health, and I honestly thought if anyone in our family lived to be 100–it would be my mother.

Mom loved pink roses, good friends, and her white leather bible, worn soft from much use. I was grateful she lived in a friendly, adult community since her husband passed away several years earlier and left her living alone at 70+. Being surrounded by good friends made Mom’s life happy.

—Yet, on this day I had been beckoned to Mom’s retirement community on a bad note, and I could feel the anger boiling just below the surface as I sat in the Manager’s office waiting. On this day the manager would “air” the numerous complaints against my mother by other residents. “NOT my Mother,” I was thinking with a grimace.

When the meeting was over, I was more confused than when I first arrived. “My mother was causing problems,” the lady told me as she lowered her head, narrowed her eyes and spoke over the rim of her reading glasses. Mom had told “off-colored” jokes at their weekly reception hour, she’d baked a cake and substituted salt for sugar–on purpose, and laughed raucously when all her friends began to complain and spit chocolate from contorted frowns.

In fact, Mom’s language had been so offensive that the “activity director” declined to repeat Mom’s words and s-p-e-l-l-e-d them out instead. Personally, I thought this woman needed more than reading glasses. Someone else might be doing all that she related-but it wasn’t my mother. My mother had a personality that anyone could love; kind, generous, loving to a fault. But before I could speak my thoughts aloud, the manager was listing more grievances against Mom.

“She goes from house to house at any hour, day or night, complaining to all who will listen about her neglectful children.” The tattling woman ranted on and on– ‘they never come to see her… they steal her money and leave her to go hungry… she has no help and is left alone… and ailing.” She stood as she finished her diatribe with arms crossed tightly over her chest.

I was appalled. I had no idea which resident she was talking about, but it wasn’t MY mother. She was clearly confused!

I’d never heard such complaints against my mother before now and could not believe it was true. –I visited twice a week. My two brothers visited one day a week, on alternate days, so Mom had company almost every day of the week. If there were any issues with us or any neglectful behavior, Mom would tell me first–not her neighbors.

I was stunned and upset, and headed straight for Mom’s house after leaving the community office. And, as I’d expected, Mom denied every incident and clearly had no memory of a single accusation. In fact she appeared almost unconcerned about every accusation, which seemed almost as strange as the wild stories I’d just heard.

It was uncommon for Mom to prefer solitude, but in the next few weeks she began to wean herself from the group of old friends. More and more often she was sitting at home, alone, when I’d arrive for a visit. If I suggested new friends, she declined. Her bubbly, bright personality dimmed.

More and more often when I arrived, I found her in the bedroom, still in her nightgown in the middle of the afternoon. Yet I was blind to what this early, odd behavior might predict. I blamed the rumor mill. The strange stories that had circulated a few months earlier had driven my Mom into solitude, I surmised, changed her sweet personality to one of brooding.

And there was more Denial and Excuses for more odd behavior and personality changes–

  • I excused Mom’s inability to find her car after shopping, though I was forced to travel 30 miles to look for it in the Safeway parking lot.
  • I excused Mom for locking herself out at midnight, then knocking on every door in the neighborhood in her nightgown until she found the neighbor who knew my phone number.
  • I excused Mom for “tipping” her favorite beautician with a $100 bill!

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The list goes on and on and I was shocked when the doctor finally diagnosed my mother with Alzheimer’s. As I look back, I can’t imagine why I was so surprised. But I was–and when I told my brothers, they could hardly believe it either. Yet, we all knew something was wrong.

To get help for your loved one, you must be willing to “SEE” the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s. If their neighbors or friends or others begin telling you about their odd behavior–Listen!

If you see behavior that is uncharacteristic for your loved one, or an abrupt change in personality– make an appointment with your family physician. The earlier Alzheimer’s is diagnosed the sooner medications can be prescribed that may slow the progress.

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Peter J. Whitehouse, M.D., Ph.D., one of the best known Alzheimer’s experts in the world, specializes in neurology with an interest in geriatrics and cognitive science and a focus on dementia.  He is the founder of the University Alzheimer Center (now the University Memory and Aging Center) at University Hospitals Case Medical Center and Case Western Reserve University where he has held professorships in the neurology, neuroscience, psychiatry, psychology, organizational behavior, bioethics, cognitive science, nursing, and history.  He is also currently a practicing geriatric neurologist. With his wife, Catherine, he founded The Intergenerational School, an award winning, internationally recognized public school committed to enhancing lifelong cognitive vitality.

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