(December 19, 2022) – One of the joys of holiday gatherings is reuniting with family members you haven’t seen in a while to reminisce, catch up, and bond over shared memories. When older parents or relatives live at a distance, holidays also offer an opportunity to see how they’ve changed since you last saw them. Are they coping well with the years, or can you detect some forgetfulness? Are they keeping up their appearance, or do they look disheveled? Are they clear-spoken or searching for the right words? It’s a good time to do a little family reconnaissance when you’re together.
Have You Noticed Changes?
Physical changes, of course, are more readily noticeable. If you sense an unsteadiness, a decline in mobility, or an increased weakness, you know that a consultation with a physician is appropriate. Cognitive decline can be harder to discern, though. Some degree is absolutely normal with aging – we all put our keys down and have trouble locating them on occasion, right? – but if episodes become more frequent or more extreme – we stash our keys in the refrigerator for safekeeping – it becomes obvious that other factors are at play.
What’s Normal or Not?
The Alzheimer’s Association, for instance, draws distinctions between forgetting a word from time to time vs. not being able to have a conversation, or forgetting what day it is vs. losing track of the date or season. When these changes take place gradually, close-by family members may have a tendency to excuse them, but the changes become clearer to people who are connecting with loved ones after an extended time away. Intermittent glitches are part of being human, but repeated episodes are reason for concern. And as with most medical conditions, identifying issues early on means there’s a greater change of staving off serious problems with immediate treatments – even when the outcomes are almost certainly inevitable. Maintaining quality of life is always the long-term goal.
A Family Affair
As you note behaviors and responses in family members, take time to compare notes with siblings and other relatives to be sure your observations align with what they’re seeing. Caring for family is often a group effort, so it makes sense to understand if your concerns are noticed and affirmed. Besides, plans for helping a loved one who’s challenged usually require time to come together, so if there’s an opportunity to troubleshoot or anticipate needs, vacation days during the holiday season can be a great time to figure out next steps with input from everyone involved.
What Can Be Done?
Sometimes, treatments or strategies can be implemented to help, and at times, clinical drug trials can offer some relief and add to the scientific knowledge of dementia. In certain circumstances, memory issues can also turn out to be a side effect of medication interactions or to result from extreme stress or an infection in the body. Working through these various scenarios to get an accurate picture of what’s at play is dependent, however, on getting a clear idea of the condition or diagnosis as determined by a physician. Professionals can also advise you on popular supplements and treatments that do not improve a person’s health and offer false hope at a cost.
The Downside of a Good Mood
One interesting characteristic of aging is that people tend to become more optimistic and positive over time, avoiding situations that cause stress or hint at negativity. While this focus on happiness seems ideal, it does mean that older people have a harder time problem-solving for the future. That means they’ll skirt discussions about giving up their car, surrendering their driver’s license, or potentially leaving their lifelong home for an assisted living facility. Better then to start those conversations early so that, when the time comes, decisions about living wills, powers of attorney, do-not-resuscitate orders, etc. will have been settled and put in place.
If you do happen to have concerns after holiday interactions, schedule an appointment with your parent or relative’s doctor and make it a point to go along and hear what he or she says. Knowledge is power, and you’ll be better equipped to make any decisions with the details and outlook provided.
If you’re kicking off your own research, you can also rely on information from reputable health and government organizations. A few to get you started include: