I think of myself as being educated in recognizing the signs of dementia. After all, I have been around people diagnosed with dementia for most of my life. I have probably met, assessed or observed more than 10,000 dementia residents in the past three decades. Certainly I could quickly identify and recognize when someone was showing signs of dementia — or so I thought.
In 2000, it wasn’t unusual for me to call my mom and chat two or three times a week. As a self-confessed momma’s boy, I was always concerned about Mom. During one of those phone calls, I could tell my mom was upset. She had accused the housekeeper of stealing some of her jewelry. I was mad at the housekeeper and ready to defend my mom’s position. Two days later, my sister found the jewelry in a box under my mom’s bed.
A week later, I was having another phone conversation with my mom. This time she said the housekeeper was taking her car for joy rides, so she fired her that day. Again, I spoke with my sister, who held the keys to Mom’s car and said it had not been moved in a month. I told my sister that this housekeeper was a real problem and seemed to be taunting Mom. My sister offered the thought that Mom was becoming more forgetful and was starting to get up in the middle of the night and to have conversations with her sister, who had passed away two decades earlier.
My immediate inclination was that my mother was dehydrated. She must not be drinking enough water, and that was causing her to be confused. Or maybe it was a change of medication, and there was some drug interaction that could explain her behavior. My sister, hearing my diagnosis, took Mom to see her doctor.
Then I got the call from my sister that I dreaded. The doctor said mom was showing signs of dementia. Even though a medical professional had given this diagnosis, I still didn’t want to believe it.
I was sure that my mom had just suffered a momentary setback that could easily be explained, but it wasn’t to be. From that day forward, her condition began to deteriorate. At first, my sister cared for her on her own. Then we hired staff to care for her in her home, and finally, she moved into one of my assisted living residences. She had become one of my customers.
I missed all the signs I should have seen:
- Accusing people of stealing personal items.
- Speaking to relatives who have passed away as if they were still alive.
- Forgetting close family members’ names or memorable events.
- Fearing to go out after dark.
- Having difficulty finding words.
I wanted my mom to be the person I knew my whole life. I didn’t know this new person, so I didn’t want to acknowledge or recognize the disease.
My own psyche wouldn’t allow for my mom to be sick or take on symptoms of a disease I knew so well. As family members, we take on our own sense of denial about Alzheimer’s. We think that, by failing to acknowledge it, it will somehow go away. But it doesn’t. Its calling gets louder and louder until you are forced to listen.
My mother was put on medication soon after her diagnosis, and her condition improved in the short term. The best thing we can do as family members is to watch for what is normal and then make sure we give in to the reality of what possible decline might be — if not for us, then for them.
Seattle-based Dwayne J. Clark is founder and chief executive officer of Aegis Living and author of the memoir “My Mother, My Son.”
Citation: “Recognizing Alzheimer’s: Denial makes a loved one’s dementia all but invisible.” http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2012/04/recognizing_alzheimers_denial.html