How Can You Tell If You Have Dementia

Question: Dear Luise: I’m writing for my great aunt who wants to know how to tell if you have dementia. She is in her early eighties and lives with us. Dementia has been something that other family members have had, so she’s scared silly. Her memory is really bad but she seems OK to me otherwise. I can’t get her to go to the doctor because she “just knows” what he’s going to tell her. The websites I have found are all a little too technical for me because I don’t know medical terminology. Is there any way you can help us? Trisha

Answer: Dear Trisha: I sure wish you could talk your aunt into seeing a geriatric, (for seniors), internist. I don’t know what it proves to not have a diagnosis when she is so bent on diagnosing herself…probably incorrectly. I’m no doc, please remember that!

I live in a retirement community so we are all pretty familiar with the “memory going south” thing. If that’s all that’s the matter…most people do not call that dementia. Older people often lose their short-term memory but they can usually tell you very detailed descriptions of childhood events. For those people, it’s not uncommon to forget what day it is, or forget a new friend’s name. What I see here is that short-term memory loss is often a little different with each person. Some forget if they have had a shower or not and some even forget whether they’ve eaten or maybe what they had to eat. They see a movie, enjoy it and forgot what it was about. Those who have spouses live at home when this happens and those living alone usually move into assisted care so they can be reminded about the things they need to do.

Dementia is seen here as being out of touch with reality. Not knowing close relatives any more and sometimes not even knowing who you are. People with dementia usually can’t figure things out or organize thoughts. Some think they are young again and have small children and some think they own the premises…things like that. They don’t know where they are sometimes. Here at the Warm Beach Retirement Center, those people live in our nursing facility because they would wander off otherwise and need protection.

I called my doctor and asked him about the difference between memory loss and dementia and he tells me some people have both. When he checks out a patient for dementia, he has a test that asks questions that involve a mental process like spelling r-i-v-e-r- backwards, what the spouse’s or adult child’s name is, what he/she enjoys in an average day, favorite foods and some adding and subtracting. People with short-term memory loss can pass the test easily.

Maybe some of what I have written will give your aunt the courage to see her doctor. Why in the world should she have to live with such fear if it’s totally inappropriate? If she still won’t go, I think you may be able to help her see that short-term memory loss is probably all she’s dealing with, not dementia. Whew! Blessings, Luise

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