Missing the Warning Signs of Dementia
In retrospect, I honestly don’t understand how I explained away my mother’s out of character behaviors. Initially the irrational moments were so infrequent, I labeled all of them collectively as “goofy,” as if they were curious and cute.
But indicators of early dementia are so insidious they are often completely overlooked or explained away by other factors - just like I was doing. Like the symptom silent killers of high blood pressure or some cancers, the body’s early warning system of Alzheimer’s disease is absent.
In this essay, I take an honest look at how I dismissed the obvious warning signs of my mother’s dementia - at her expense. I share my experiences so others can relate and move out of denial into proactive mode.
First Warning Signs of Dementia
The first indication of my mother’s Alzheimer’s was in February 2005, just after my brother died of cancer. Mom had flown from her place in Michigan to my cousin's home in Arizona for my brother’s memorial. I was barely in the door when my cousin took me aside and whispered, “I’m worried about her. She thinks she’s back home and is looking for her apartment!”
At the time, I attributed Mom’s confusion to grief; just the year before, my dad had passed. Tragically, I failed to comprehend that regardless of her emotional trauma, she should have remembered that she had flown three hours from wintery Michigan to warm Sedona. She should have recognized that her surroundings looked nothing like her normal ones. She should have expressed sadness, grief and tears, and I should have been listening.
Continued Signs of Alzheimer's
Had this genuinely been a strange but isolated incident, there would be nothing more to say. But Mom’s episodes of odd remarks and confusion continued for a few years, steadily increasing in frequency, duration and aberration.
She accused the very tall, heavy-set cleaning lady of stealing her size 4, petite wool pants. She fired her financial planner because she believed he had electronically forged her signature and stolen seven dollars' worth of stamps and a pair of black loafers - both of which I found right where they’d always been.
I didn't know it then, but I do now: Suspicion and paranoia are not a part of normal aging. They are evidence of a brain run amuck.
Trust Others Who Spot the Behaviors
To me, these were isolated incidents. Since mom and I lived two hours apart, I didn’t witness her day to day personality deterioration and breaks from reality as often as those around her did.
Staff at my mother’s senior apartment complex observed and accurately identified her irrational conduct and shared their concerns with me. Repeatedly, in fact. And repeatedly, I blew them off and and kept hearing exactly what I wanted to hear - not the truth.
From my perspective at the time, they were unfortunately just voices on the phone without faces or names. I knew my mom. I didn’t know them so I didn’t trust them....until they turned out to be right.
Then, the proverbial plot thickened. Mom wandered outside through a massive road construction project, full of dangerous equipment. She ran through the lobby of her senior apartment complex “jabbing her finger” at others and took off in her car. She got lost driving to the dentist a mile away and ended up two counties over. She described hallucinations and had an unmistakable delusional episode, and I finally took the concerns of her senior apartment staff seriously.
What to Do When You Notice Warning Signs of Dementia
Only in retrospect do I realize how my unwitting mistakes were still mistakes. My naïve errors in judgement could have had catastrophic effects. Fortunately, the concerned voices on the phone recognized what I couldn’t and kept my mother safe when I didn’t.
Here's what I would have done then, knowing what I know now:
- First, note the first bizarre behavior and really pay attention to repeated oddities - even if they're small.
- Listen to others, especially if they see your loved one every day. If others express concerns, they are probably correct. They don’t have an agenda to lie.
- If you're having trouble accepting outside concerns, ask for “irrefutable video evidence” to overturn your blind bias.
- Step out of your comfortable but blinding veil of denial and be prepared to act as needed to ensure their safety.
As a family member or loved one, distinguishing the difference between age-related fluctuations in demeanor and outright breaks from reality, however brief or infrequent, is not your area of expertise. If you know the early warning signs of dementia & Alzheimer's, you'll know when to accept help - and when to seek professionals.
Elaine C. Pereira, MA OTR/L CDP CDC is an author, speaker, certified dementia practitioner and caregiver. Contact her at email@example.com.