Are you getting concerned about your elderly parent’s forgetfulness? Does something seem off with their behavior? Recognizing the early signs of Alzheimer’s or other dementia can be tough. It’s hard to know if what you’re seeing is dementia or if it’s just normal aging.
Early Signs of Dementia
Looking back, I know now my mom’s first signs of Alzheimer’s started about six years ago. It was little things at first like asking a question she had just asked or misplacing something she used often. These things didn’t seem like cause for concern at the time, but gradually the “senior moments” came more often, and I began wondering if these were the early warning signs of Alzheimer’s.
I found sites on dementia and Alzheimer’s and studied the info. I saw stuff like:
A common sign of Alzheimer’s is asking for the same information repeatedly, but a typical age-related change is sometimes forgetting things but remembering them later.
These types of descriptions left me frustrated. I mean, how many times does she have to ask for it to qualify as “repeatedly”? And within what time frame? And what if she repeatedly asks something one day, but then doesn’t do it again for the next 2 weeks?
I found it tough to distinguish the so-called “typical age-related changes” from signs I should be concerned about until her symptoms worsened, because most of the time, she seemed perfectly fine.
But now I can see the little things that were early signs of Alzheimer’s in my mom’s case because they all got worse. A lot worse.
Mom’s first signs of Alzheimer’s
Below I share 12 specific things my mom did that I know now were the beginning signs of Alzheimer’s for her. At first, these things did not happen every day. Just one here, one there.
1. Asking “What’s today?” – It started something like this,
Mom: What is today?
Me: It’s Tuesday, Mom.
Two hours later…
Mom: What day is it? Did I already ask you that?
Me: Yes, you did. And it’s still Tuesday.
Then, no issues with this for days, or even a week. And then, it pops up again. Currently, Mom, who is in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s, asks me what day it is multiple times every day often within a minute of the last time she asked.
2. Forgetting medication refills or forgetting to take medication altogether – My mom’s medication was a mess by the time I realized she couldn’t handle it anymore. She did a great job covering for quite some time because she didn’t want anyone to know she was having a hard time keeping it organized. Today I keep all of my mom’s meds and give her each dose. She doesn’t even know what she takes anymore.
3. Repeatedly buying unneeded items at the grocery store – My mom bought frozen concentrated orange juice every time she went to the store for months. The freezer was literally full of it. I remember finding all the orange juice and thinking it was funny. At the time, I didn’t realize it was a symptom of a much bigger problem. Today Mom can’t look in the kitchen and process what we need from the store. She does still try to make a shopping list, but it may or may not have things on it we actually need.
4. Asking me to help write checks for bills – At first, she blamed this on needing new glasses. But after she got new glasses, she still couldn’t seem to look at a bill and then write a check for the correct amount. Mom doesn’t pay bills or write checks at all anymore.
5. Uncharacteristic change in the thoroughness of her housekeeping – Initially, I noticed dust. Then I noticed the floors and refrigerator needed attention. And then soon she started leaving food out on the counter and letting the trash overflow. All of this was really out of character for her. She had always kept her house really clean. Today she rarely notices that something needs cleaning or to be put away.
6. Misplacing things she used frequently – This was a hard one to attribute to Alzheimer’s at first because we all misplace stuff sometimes, right? The red flag went up on this when Mom started insisting someone else had moved or stolen the missing item. We currently play “What’s Missing” on a daily basis. Mom now believes all of her misplaced things were taken by me, my kids, the housekeeper, or random unknown people who come into her room when she’s not in it. I seriously can’t even guess how many hours a week I spend looking for stuff for her. Because the stuff she loses is rarely somewhere logical. It’s like she’s hiding it.
7. Trouble following the plot or remembering the characters on a television show – This started with Mom asking, “Who is that?” each time the scene on a show changed. It was also apparent early on that she was confused about what was happening in the storyline. She would even get familiar characters confused between shows. For example, she once thought Meredith Grey and Richard Webber were running from zombies in the Walking Dead. Today, Mom has the TV on all the time but doesn’t really watch anything.
8. Asking how much tip to leave at a restaurant – My mom was a bookkeeper, and before Alzheimer’s, it was effortless for her to calculate 20% of a number in her head. Having trouble with this was another thing Mom initially blamed on needing new glasses. Mom can no longer check out while shopping without assistance, and she struggles to count cash.
9. Misremembering events or stories – I noticed this for the first time when she didn’t remember visiting her sister who we had just visited the day before. After I told Mom we had just seen her sister I could see this blank look on her face. I reminded her where we had all eaten lunch and what we had talked about. She looked at me blankly and said she remembered. But I could tell she wasn’t sure. A few months later I noticed she would take a story about something that happened to someone else and retell the story as if happened to her. These symptoms have progressed to the point of her taking bits and pieces of information from multiple events, along with a good dose of complete fiction, and creating new events that she is positive happened. And in my mom’s case, these fictitious events are rarely positive. They are almost always something negative she thinks someone has done to her.
10. Being uncharacteristically mean, just for a moment – First with my kids. Then with me. Sadly the mean stuff has gotten worse as my mom’s Alzheimer’s has progressed. When she gets angry about something, she doesn’t hold back and lets the hurtful words fly.
11. Tripping and falling – Mom initially blamed this on her shoes or even the floor. We were lucky that Mom never really got hurt in any of her early falls. We got her a walker, and she’s still doing pretty well getting around as long as she uses it.
12. Getting confused about where things are in a familiar store – On one of our many shopping trips to Target, suddenly Mom couldn’t find the bathroom. This happened after I was already pretty concerned about her memory issues and was one of those “Houston, we have a problem” moments for me. She had been in that Target and to that bathroom a couple of times a week for years. I left the store that day and called my sister in a panic. Because who forgets where the bathroom is at Target? But the rest of that day and the days that followed she seemed okay. And the next time we went to Target, she found the bathroom just fine. I didn’t see her confused again in a store for quite some time. Alzheimer’s is sneaky that way. Now, leaving Mom alone in a store isn’t an option. I can’t let her out of my sight.
Talk to Your Aging Parents About Dementia
If you’re wondering if things you see in your loved one could be Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia I have some advice for you as someone who has been in your shoes. Have a conversation with them now. Don’t wait until you are “sure” because that’s likely not going to be until things have progressed quite a bit. It gets much more challenging to have the hard conversations once your loved one has lost significant function and you have already had to take over managing portions of their finances, medical care, and daily living activities. I wish I had talked with Mom early on. I wish we had discussed Alzheimer’s and her wishes before she was dealing with the daily confusion and frustration that comes with dementia.
There are many important topics, in addition to dementia, everyone should discuss with their aging parents. So if you’re finding it tough to bring up your concerns specifically about your suspicions regarding their memory or behaviors, lump that topic into a more general discussion on planning for the future. Eldercare Locator has created a fantastic “Face the Facts” resource. It even includes suggestions on ways to approach the conversation.
Here’s the link: Face the Facts
If you haven’t talked to your parents about this stuff yet, this is a great resource to get you started.