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Does frequent reminiscing signal cognitive decline?

InForum columnist Carol Bradley Bursack addresses how to determine whether or not sharing old memories is a sign of something more.

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Dear Carol: For someone who’s 83, my dad is doing well. Even so, since Mom died of Alzheimer’s, I worry about every little change. This is my current concern: Dad’s always enjoyed telling stories of his youth and early adulthood, including when he and Mom were dating, but lately, he’s been doing it more often. He’s not overly repetitive and his timing is appropriate. Still, I wonder if this signals that he’s losing interest in his current life, or worse, developing Alzheimer’s. Dad’s alone quite a bit but not excessively, and he’s always cherished solitude, so that’s not new. He’s a voracious reader and enjoys watching historical television shows. He’s reasonably active at church, belongs to a chess club and seems content. All good, I know. So, when is reminiscing about one’s life a red flag for cognitive decline? Also, since I’m asking, is this an appropriate time for me to ask if he needs help? – DM

Dear DM: While it’s good to be aware of changes, I think you can rest easy for now. Looking back on one’s life is normal. For thoughtful older people, it’s often a way of using the perspective of years to examine how past events fit into the whole of one’s life. It sounds to me like your dad is doing what is natural for older people who are cognitively sound.

Choosing you as his audience suggests that he feels close to you and he wants you to understand how he became who he is today. You’re fortunate that he’s able to show love in this way. He’s giving you an opportunity to ask him questions about his past and yours, as well. For fun, ask him what he remembers best about your young years and see what you learn!

Like everyone, your dad’s personal history informs his attitudes. Did your parents take care of their own aging parents? If so, does he feel good about that or resentful? How did he handle being a care partner for your mom? This isn’t meant to pass judgment but to determine how he might look at aging.

Listen to him with enjoyment rather than worry. In the process, you will gain insight into how to approach him with questions. If you don’t already know, ask if he’s assigned someone as his Powers of Attorney for both health and finances now that your mom has passed. Over time, you can ask how he views his ideal future as well as an alternate plan should health or financial challenges force changes. An important bonus of this communication is that he’ll feel more comfortable if he needs to ask for your help.

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Keep an eye on his cognition, of course, but be careful not to make every story or discussion into an “opportunity” for you to plan for future caregiving. That could both shut down his willingness to share and detract from your joy in learning more about your dad as a person. His stories are part of his legacy.

Read more columns from Carol Bradley Bursack

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver and a nationally-recognized presence in caregiver support. She's the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories,” a longtime newspaper columnist and host of her blog at mindingoureldersblog.com. Carol's an introverted book nerd, so you won't see her mugging in viral videos, but you can easily reach her using the contact form at mindingourelders.com.
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