The holiday season, for all the cheer and joy associated with it, can also bring a stark reality for some families: that a loved one might be developing dementia.
That's because some family members might be getting together for the first time in a while — six months, a year — and it’s common to notice changes in behavior that have occurred over time, experts say.
It’s the kind of things that you might not be able to detect over the phone: unopened medication, a messy house, a dent in the car that your parent can’t explain.
Because dementia can be a slow-moving disease, family members who frequently see a loved one might pick up on behavioral changes but not think much of them, said Paula Taliaferro, education and outreach coordinator for the Central Ohio Area Agency on Aging.
“They get used to the odd stuff,” she said. “Then the out-of-towners, they’re most likely to notice changes.”
Families who find themselves in this situation might get overwhelmed and be unsure of what to do, so The Dispatch talked to three experts about what to look for and do as you begin caregiving for a loved one with dementia.
If things do seem off with a loved one, don’t start asking a flurry of accusatory questions, said Teepa Snow, a North Carolina dementia and Alzheimer’s expert who was in Westerville last month for a workshop with care providers at Inniswood Village.
Snow said start with something simple, like, “Mom, tell me about how things have been going for you,” or, “Mom, what happened to the car?”
“What I’m looking for is, does she have awareness or does she have no awareness? If she doesn’t have any awareness and yet all the evidence of my eyes and my ears say something’s happening here, I need to take a pause,” Snow said.
You need to get your loved one help, as soon as you suspect something might be up, the experts said.
Getting an official dementia diagnosis means the possibility of getting medication to slow the disease, or in some cases of cognitive impairment such as those caused by drugs or depression, reverse it, said Dr. Douglas Scharre, director of the division of cognitive neurology at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center's Neurological Institute.
But Taliaferro says you shouldn't confront your loved one by telling them you think they have dementia and should see a doctor. She recommends asking your loved one to get a comprehensive assessment, which should still pick up on early signs of dementia.
"Say, 'I'm worried about your health in general,' " she said. If your loved one has a spouse still living, suggesting that they both get a comprehensive exam, even if you're only concerned about one person, could be more convincing, Taliaferro said.
How you ask
Communicating with someone living with dementia, particularly as the disease progresses, requires a change in approach, Scharre said.
You'll need to encourage them to do certain tasks, and Scharre said how you ask them to do it matters just as much as what you ask them to do.
Avoid statements like, "Do this, do that," he said. Instead, if you're going to take them to a doctor's appointment, say things like, "I'm going to get dressed for this appointment. Do you want to get dressed as well?"
Two other phrases to avoid, according to Snow: "Don't you remember?" and "We talked about this."
Learning to accept that they don't remember and that you need to start from scratch is hard, Snow said, but it's necessary.