Medical diagnosis is vital to determine steps for dementia care
Dear Carol: I've lived 900 miles away from my parents for years. My husband and I were tied down with caring for his parents, so we didn't see my family as often as we'd like, but they always seemed fine when we talked or visited. Now, his parents have both passed and we've been traveling to visit my parents more often. These last few visits have highlighted my mom's decline. It's obvious that she's got dementia but she ignores the symptoms and hasn't been diagnosed. Dad is in denial and covers for her, as does my only sibling. How do I even begin to help with this? — NY
Dear NY: Paying attention to so many elders at once is difficult and you've done your best to cover the bases, so the best you can do now is try to intercede without seeming to take over your parents' lives.
Since your mom hasn't seen a doctor about her dementia symptoms, that is the essential next step. A specialist is best, if possible. Gently explain to your dad that a diagnosis will benefit both of them. Accepting that something is terribly wrong with his wife is hard, thus the denial, but it's important for him to understand the consequences. If he continues with denial, tell him to come along to the doctor's visit anyway just to see what you all can learn.
Your family should decide together how to approach your mom ahead of the appointment. It may be wise to agree to tell her that it's time for a checkup and leave it at that. Let the doctor be the person to lay out your mom's diagnosis and what it means for both of your parents.
Likely, the doctor will want to go over your mom's current medications to see if any of them could be contributing to her symptoms. She'll probably need a thorough physical by another doctor, too, and it's possible that you may be able to get that appointment sooner than the specialist. Take the appointments in whatever order you can get them.
While you wait for the appointment(s), your family can become educated about how to work with people living with dementia. There is a lot to learn and much of the future quality of life for both of your parents depends on caregiver practices. Two good websites that can help are www.alzfdn.org and www.alz.org.
For now, remember not to argue with your mom. If she says the grass is blue then, to her it is, so don't insist that it's green. You could say, "It really does have a blue tint today, doesn't it, Mom?" This type of answer doesn't make her feel diminished. In her mind, she is as right as you are in your mind so remember that and do all that you can to preserve her sense of dignity.
After the specialist evaluates your mom, you'll have a better idea of what you should be doing to assist both of your parents.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.