Noticing the Signs of Dementia

Earlier this week I saw the following tweet from Dr. Oz.

I recently found out that my mom, Suna, has Alzheimer’s disease. Hearing the official diagnosis was devastating. But just as painful for me was the realization that the signs were there all along. I had just been overlooking them.

His tweet caught my attention because I believe his experience is very common – and with good reason. My mom also had dementia, but I have no idea how long she had experienced the early signs. She and my dad lived in South Florida while Kate and I lived here in Knoxville. They made their decision to move here in 1993. At the time I knew they were experiencing aging issues common to people who are eighty, but it never crossed my mind to suspect that she might have dementia. I don’t even recall the time that I recognized it for myself. I know it was earlier than 1998 when her doctor’s social worker gave us the results of her routine memory test. She was very careful in the way she told my dad and me. She didn’t want to shock us. She needn’t have worried. We were not surprised and told her we were aware of the problem.

She died in November 2002, just four years after the diagnosis. Looking back, and given what I know now, I believe she was at Stage 7 of the 7-stage model of the progression of Alzheimer’s at least a year or two before her death. I am sure that Dad must have known the problem before their decision to leave Florida even if he didn’t recognize it as dementia. He never said a word to me before the diagnosis and very little afterwards. What I knew came only from my personal observations. I had arranged for their purchase of a condo that was near our home, and was with them a lot. Yet, when the doctor suggested it was time for hospice a few months before her death, I was surprised. How could I have been so blind?

I have a better understanding now that Kate and I have lived with the disease 13 years since we noticed her first signs. I believe there are two interacting reasons. First, it makes a big difference to be with a person for an extended period of time and even better if you live with the person. That is particularly true in the early stages when so much of a person’s behavior is normal. Second, changes are gradual so that it is difficult to recognize them until the behavior becomes obviously abnormal.

I am pretty sure that I missed the early signs of my mother’s dementia because I wasn’t with them very often. They were still in Florida. When they moved here, I wasn’t looking for them and still wasn’t around her enough to see anything but a memory problem. I attributed that to aging. I recall my mom’s saying, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can’t remember anything anymore.” My standard answer, even after the diagnosis, was “Everyone forgets things now and then. That’s especially true as we get older.” Sometime over the two or three years after their move to Knoxville, I could tell that her problem was more serious than simple aging.

Kate recognized her Alzheimer’s symptoms before I did. For several years, she periodically said, “I think I have Alzheimer’s.” I responded the way I had with my mother and suggested it was part of aging. Over time, I began to realize she was right. That was about five or six years after the first signs.

I have heard others say they were as surprised as I when medical authorities suggested hospice for their loved ones. I believe that, too, is also understandable. It is easy to adapt to patterns of behavior, and not be sensitive to the progression of the illness. My mom had been uncommunicative for a period of time before the doctor mentioned hospice, and I didn’t notice any signs of the end. The doctor, a gerontologist, could see what I couldn’t.

I am also reminded of the passing of Kate’s mother. The day before she died neither Kate nor I had any thoughts about her having only a day to live; however, the caregiver on duty that morning told us she had begun the process of dying. By that afternoon, we could see that she was right. She died just after 8:00 the next morning.

I see how Dr. Oz failed to recognize his own mother’s dementia. It’s not that hard to miss unless you are around the person a lot.

I should make one other point. It makes perfectly good sense for people in their seventies or older to think that their memory problems are normal. That is usually correct, but about one in every seven people over the age of seventy has some form of dementia.

I did not sense a great need to get an official diagnosis for Kate. I knew there wasn’t a cure and felt that it would not change anything we were going to do; however, once we had the diagnosis, we became much more intentional in making the most of our time together. I know that has paid off for us. We are still living well almost nine years later.

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