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Published November 10, 2012, 11:35 PM

Minding Our Elders: Recently widowed mother shows signs of dementia

How do you gently begin to supervise a parent’s health? Our mother is widowed now and 74 years old. She took care of our dad who had dementia and she seemed to do okay for awhile after he died. But now she frequently forgets her medications doubles them up, which she has admitted, and she frequently mixes up names and places.

By: Carol Bradley Bursack, INFORUM

DEAR CAROL: How do you gently begin to supervise a parent’s health? Our mother is widowed now and 74 years old. She took care of our dad who had dementia and she seemed to do okay for awhile after he died. But now she frequently forgets her medications doubles them up, which she has admitted, and she frequently mixes up names and places.

My nephew lives with her and he’s had to take her to the emergency room a few times because of kitchen accidents and one bad fall.

We don’t want to be hasty in taking over her health care, but we are afraid for her. She insists she doesn’t need to have a checkup for cognitive issues. – Joanne

DEAR JOANNE: It does sound like your mother’s health is slipping, though it’s possible that her decline has been happening so slowly that it went unnoticed because of the drama surrounding your dad. Now that the immediate trauma of losing your dad has passed, your mom’s symptoms have become more evident.

She does need to see a doctor. Underneath, she may be glad to have your help, she may be afraid she has dementia like her husband, so she’d rather not be diagnosed.

Since she’s admitted to some forgetfulness, you may want to let her know that a urinary tract infection (UTI), or some other low-grade infection could be causing memory issues or confusion. Also, the fact that she’s not taking her medication correctly could be part of the cycle. Overdoses, such as when she doubles the dose because she’s forgotten she’s already taken her medications can cause confusion, dizziness, falls and any number of other issues. Low vitamin B12 can cause some people to exhibit dementia-like symptoms. It’s also possible that she is having a medication interaction between a prescription drug and some over-the-counter medications. If she realizes that there could be any number of reasons that she is forgetful, she may be more willing to see a doctor.

Of course, she could be in an early stage of dementia, as well, but you don’t need to make possible dementia the focus of her medical appointment. It’s sad, but the stigma of dementia is such that people are often afraid to get a physical for fear they will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Therefore, I’d focus on other possible causes for her confusion and injuries.

Then, once the doctor gives her a complete checkup, if he or she finds everything else looks to be in order the doctor can approach the dementia issue. Comfort your mom no matter what the outcome. She is likely still grieving her husband’s illness and death, so she may need a lot of help from family and friends to maintain her own will to take care of herself.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com.

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