In honor of Alzheimer's Awareness Month, I am sharing this pertinent information, as published in Stone Benches: Understanding the Invisible Footprints of Dementia, (Copyright 2016 Symphony Publishing).
The warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease can be subtle. However, after making note of concerns and looking at the overall picture, discrepancies become easier to see. Following are common warning signs published by the Alzheimer’s Association. These signs, which occur in no particular order, are easy for me to identify now as I look back at my Mom’s symptoms.
1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life
One of the most common signs of Alzheimer’s, especially in the early stages, is forgetting recently learned information. Others include forgetting important dates or events; asking for the same information over and over; relying on memory aides or family members for things they used to handle on their own.
Sometimes forgetting names or appointments, then remembering them later, is normal; frequently forgetting important events is not. Mom planned for and celebrated birthdays enthusiastically. When she began to completely forget our birthdays, it was not only heartbreaking, but a sign of a deeper problem. The year she sent Christmas cards out in early October was a monumental clue something was terribly wrong.
2. Challenges in planning or solving problems
Some people may experience changes in their ability to develop and follow a plan or work with numbers. They may have trouble following a familiar recipe or keeping track of monthly bills. They may have difficulty concentrating and take much longer to do things than they did before.
We all occasionally make errors in balancing the checkbook or omit an ingredient in a recipe, this is normal. Mom’s sudden inability to make her traditional Christmas rolls was a sign this disease had taken over. The challenges she faced in the kitchen, as well as when grocery shopping, produced an overall lack of interest.
3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks
People with Alzheimer’s often find it hard to complete daily tasks. Sometimes, people may have trouble driving to a familiar location, managing a budget at work or remembering the rules of a favorite game.
It is normal to occasionally need help with the settings on a microwave. My family will confirm; my television remote control struggles are real. However, it was a major clue when my dad began to do the grocery shopping, as well as all the cooking and cleaning. This had always been my mom’s area of expertise and she suddenly was not participating at all.
4. Confusion with time or place
People with Alzheimer's can lose track of dates, seasons and the passage of time. They may have trouble understanding something if it is not happening immediately. Sometimes they may forget where they are or how they got there.
It is typical, especially after a trip or holiday, to be confused about what day of the week it is. One of the most frustrating warning signs for me was when my mom began to get very angry at me for habitually showing up late or on the wrong day. Even when we wrote our plans down, I could not convince her I had arrived as we had planned.
5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
For some people, having vision problems is a sign of Alzheimer's. They may have difficulty reading, judging distance and determining color or contrast. In terms of perception, they may pass a mirror and think someone else is in the room. They may not recognize their own reflection.
Vision problems, such as those due to cataracts, are common as we age. Mom backing the car into a closed garage door was not. When she suddenly abruptly stopped driving, coupled with a bowed out garage door and dented back bumper, it was apparent more than an eye exam was needed.
6. New problems with words in speaking or writing
People with Alzheimer's may have trouble following or joining a conversation. They may stop in the middle of a conversation and have no idea how to continue or they may repeat themselves. They may struggle with vocabulary, have problems finding the right word or call things by the wrong name.
We all struggle at times to find the right word. My mom had one of the most amazing vocabularies I have ever known and was using words like “shenanigans” well into her disease. The most telltale sign for her was the difficulty in following conversations. She would often withdraw, especially in social gatherings where she might be asked questions.
7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
A person with Alzheimer’s disease may put things in unusual places. They may lose things and be unable to go back over their steps to find them again. Sometimes, they may accuse others of stealing. This may occur more frequently over time.
Misplacing things from time to time, such as a pair of glasses or the remote control, happens to all of us. Normally we would not suspect someone of stealing these items. As the disease progressed, my mom became very suspicious and was convinced misplaced items had been stolen.
8. Decreased or poor judgment
People with Alzheimer's may experience changes in judgement or decision making. For example, they may use poor judgment when dealing with money, giving large amounts to telemarketers. They may pay less attention to grooming or keeping themselves clean.
We have all made a bad decision which we later regret, or ran to the grocery store looking less than impressive. However, when someone like my mom, who was a wonderful seamstress, started choosing shocking combinations of clothing for formal affairs, my suspicions were warranted.
9.Withdrawal from work or social activities
A person with Alzheimer's may start to remove themselves from hobbies, social activities, work projects or sports. They may have trouble keeping up with a favorite sports team or remembering how to complete a favorite hobby. They may also avoid being social because of the changes they have experienced.
Most have us have experienced being weary of work, family and social obligations. I remember early on being frustrated with my normally social mom who seemed to be hiding out in the corner at family gatherings. What I perceived as rude was, in reality, a symptom of my mom’s very real struggle with this disease.
10. Changes in mood and personality
The mood and personalities of people with Alzheimer's can change. They can become confused, suspicious, depressed, fearful or anxious. They may be easily upset at home, at work, with friends or in places where they are out of their comfort zone.
Many of us have a very specific way of doing certain things and sometimes become irritable when a routine is disrupted. However, when Mom became convinced her doctor was “playing tricks” on her by telling her his office was located on the fifth floor of a three story building, it became obvious her suspicions were fueled by a more serious problem.
Of course, this disease is full of variables and each person reacts to circumstances differently. However, these warning signs do serve as a good basis for determining if further evaluation should be pursued. It is important to remember a person with this disease did nothing to get it and there is nothing they can do to get out of it.
It is not uncommon to consciously or unconsciously blame the patient. We must remember this disease was not caused by something our loved ones did wrong. They cannot change what is happening and they cannot train it away. Alzheimer’s disease is just that, a disease, which is damaging and deteriorating the brain.
If you are concerned about yourself or a loved one who is experiencing these symptoms, consult with a medical professional who is familiar with the unique characteristics of Alzheimer's disease. Your local Alzheimer's Association will be able to provide information, as well as referrals. The Alzheimer's Association Helpline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you need assistance, please call 800-272-3900.
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