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Your Mother’s Day Visit – Seeing Signs of Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

Posted May 07 2009 8:20pm

By CK Wilde for 3GenFamily Blog

This is Part One in a two part series about recognizing the signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease so that aging family members can get the help they need.

By the time Lita Baker came to see Dr. Susan Steen,
Lita, a frail woman in her 80s, was already on Aricept and an anti-psychotic drug to deal with her Alzheimer’s Disease. She had also had a baseline MRI and a documented medical history thanks to granddaughter, Theresa Robaldo.

Dr. Steen,who is a board certified neurologist and researcher practicing at Tampa (FL) Neurology Associates, was able to assess how Lita was faring using that information along with additional tests. By carefully reviewing the situation,  Dr. Steen was able to adjust the doses of those medications so that Lita would be less sedated and able to participate more in daily activities.

When Did It Start?

Lita’s issues surfaced shortly after her husband died two years ago. At first, there were minor annoyances like losing her glasses and misplacing her dentures. Then, she developed a funny habit of hiding food around the house.

Being a registered nurse, Theresa was pretty sure she saw a medical problem beyond age and frailty.  Other family members didn’t want to believe it and just excused the odd behavior as part of Lita’s personality.

For a short while, Lita managed to hide her growing problem from her family, but eventually it became too difficult to hide. The family physician admitted that Lita probably had dementia but, like many doctors, was hesitant to make a diagnosis.

Theresa lobbied the family to get Lita more help.

Lita understood that Theresa was trying to help her and gave Theresa power of attorney. (The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 – HIPAA – restricts the amount of information a doctor may share with family members about an adult patient without the permission of the patient. Having power of attorney allows a family caregiver to work closely with doctors on the patient’s behalf.)

When Lita finally reached the point that she couldn’t work the telephone, Theresa took Lita into her own home and became Lita’s full-time caregiver.

Are You Visiting Mom or Grandma on Mother’s Day?

Just mentioning the words dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease can strike terror in anyone who ponders loved ones or themselves getting older.  But, contrary to what some people think, these diseases are not a part of normal aging.

Dementia is the general word used to describe a progressive loss of cognitive function. Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common type of dementia. Researchers are vigorously working to find answers about how and why people develop dementia.

While there is no cure right now, early diagnosis and treatment can slow a person’s decline and increase the quality of life. Family members are a critical factor in getting a patient the right diagnosis and treatment. Unfortunately, many adults are confused about which signs point to Alzheimer’s rather than normal aging.

If you are planning to spend some quality time with an older family member on Mother’s Day, it may be helpful to know what to look for. A great website for information and encouragement is

Here are some common signs of dementia / Alzheimer’s:

  • Problems doing simple tasks, such as getting dressed
  • Difficulty talking with others, withdrawing
  • Trouble with knowing the time, date, or place
  • Poor judgment, such as letting strangers in the house or going out in winter without a coat
  • Trouble solving problems or tasks like balancing a checkbook
  • Losing things, such as glasses or keys, more often than usual
  • Rapid swings in mood or changes in behavior, like being secretive or suspicious
  • Forgetting both recent and past events

Additional information about symptoms can be found on this page at

Not everyone will have these symptoms, though. A recent study by researchers at the University of Washington indicates that the first signs may be physical impairment rather than mental. The study showed that walking more slowing and poor balance were more common in people later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or some other dementia. This was certainly true in my Dad’s case.

Where To From Here?

Theresa insisted on getting a proper diagnosis and treatment plan for Lita. That involved changing doctors.

Some doctors are hesitant to make a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s fearing it will make the patient and family more anxious. “A recent study indicates that once a diagnosis is made, levels of anxiety for the patient don’t change,” Dr. Steen remarked.

And, early treatment can slow the progression of the disease. With Theresa’s help, Lita found Dr. Steen and became her patient.

“When we are dealing with a patient with multiple health problems, we rely on history from the family to find the right issue. Unfortunately, families sometimes react out of fear. They may be hostile to the patient or believe it is the patient’s fault,” Dr. Steen indicated.

Dr. Steen and her colleagues work with family members to help them understand what is happening to the patient and what they can expect in the future.

Theresa commented “Even though I am registered nurse, I struggled at times to understand Lita’s behavior. Dr. Steen recommended that our family read The 36 Hour Day. The book helped me and other members of our family better deal with this.”

You Can Be The One

Your visit with elderly family members on Mother’s Day can be the perfect time to start the conversation that helps your loved one get the medical care she needs. If you notice any of the signs shown above, you can make a playful game out of The Clock Draw Test. (The web page allows you to print out the blank and sample pages.)

It is a simple paper and pencil test that will provide your family doctor with helpful information about your Mom’s condition. The sooner she gets help, the better chance she has for slowing or halting the dementia.

Speak up! You can be the one who makes a difference in your loved one’s health.

Part Two – Being the Caregiver

Many thanks for Dr. Susan Steen and Theresa Robaldo for sharing their stories for this article.

Click the “Share This” link below to email this post to a friend or social networking site. Thanks for reading!  Feel free to comment.

© 2009 CK Wilde. All Rights Reserved. Please feel free to link to this post but you must have prior written permission (please use the comments) to reproduce this post either whole or in part.

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