I think of myself as being educated in recognizing the signs of dementia. After all, I have been around people diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer’s for most of my life. I have probably met, assessed or observed over 10,000 dementia residents in the last three decades. Certainly I could quickly identify and recognize when someone was having signs of dementia. Well, that is what I thought.
In 2000, it wasn’t unusual for me to call my mom and chat 2-3 times a week. As a self-confessed momma’s boy, I was always concerned about Mom. During one of those phone calls, my mother answered and I could tell she was upset. She had accused the housekeeper of stealing some of her jewelry. I was mad at the housekeeper and ready to defend my mom’s position. Two days later, my sister found the jewelry in a box under my mom’s bed. A week later, another phone call from my mom. This time she said the housekeeper was taking her car for joy rides, so she fired her that day. Again, I spoke with my sister who held the keys to mom’s car and said it had not been moved in a month. I told my sister that this housekeeper was a real problem and seemed to be taunting Mom. My sister offered that she thought Mom was becoming more forgetful and was starting to get up in the middle of the night and have conversations with her sister who had passed away two decades earlier.
My immediate inclination was that my mother was dehydrated. She must not be drinking enough water and that was causing her to be confused. Or maybe it was a change of medication and there was some drug interaction that could be explained. My sister, hearing my diagnosis, took Mom to see her doctor. Then I got the call that I dreaded, the doctor said mom was showing signs of dementia. Even though a medical professional had given this diagnosis, I still didn’t want to believe it. “Did he do a full blood work up?” I asked. “Did he do a urinalysis to see if she is dehydrated?” I was sure that my mom had just a momentary set back that could easily be explained. But it wasn’t to be. From that day forward, her condition began to deteriorate. At first my sister cared for her. Then we hired care staff to care for her in her home, and then she moved into one of my assisted living residences. She had become one of my customers.
I missed all the signs that I should have seen:
- accusing people of stealing personal items
- speaking to relatives who have passed away as if they were still alive
- forgetting close family members’ names or memorable events
- fearing to go out at dark
- difficulty finding words
I wanted my mom to be the person who I knew my whole life. I didn’t know this new person, so I didn’t want to acknowledge or recognize the disease. My own psyche wouldn’t allow for my mom to be sick or take on symptoms of a disease that I knew so well. As family members, we take on our own sense of denial about Alzheimer’s. We think that by failing to acknowledge it, that it will somehow go away. But it doesn’t, it’s calling gets louder and louder until you are forced to listen.
My mother was put on Aricept soon after her diagnosis and her condition improved in the short term. The best thing we can do as family members is to watch for what is normal and then make sure we give in to the reality of what possible decline might be, if not for us, then for them.