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Noticing Signs of Memory Loss in Your Older Loved One?

Here are five next steps to take.

1. Write down what you observe.

If you're noticing changes in your loved one's memory or changes in cognitive function (this is a fancy term for the way the brain thinks, remembers, processes information, etc.), it is really important that you keep track of specific examples that you notice.

For example:

  • “My mom got lost the other day driving home from a store that she's been going to for years."
  • "My dad’s been leaving the stove on and burning food."
  • "My wife has been rummaging through drawers and can never find what she’s looking for."
  • "My partner was an accountant and now struggles with paying his bills."

You get the idea! Imagine that you're a scientist, and you have to give a report of your loved one's behaviors. Write them all down.

2. Pay attention to the timeline and any stressful events.

Write down when you noticed these changes starting. Are the changes gradual (like has this slowly been getting worse over time), or all of a sudden? Like one day, your loved one is fine, and the next day they're confused. Did the changes occur with any falls or changes in medication? Did the changes occur with a big move, like to a new home or state? Or after the death of someone close? Pay close attention to the timeline and any stressful situations or changes just before the memory loss or confusion started.

3. Share your concerns in a compassionate and loving way.

Let your loved one know that you're concerned about them in a gentle and loving way. It can also help to gently share the specific examples of what you’ve observed (from steps 1 and 2). Depending on what is going on medically, they may not believe you or think you are making up lies about them. Don’t argue; just simply add their response to your list of observations, and ask if they'd be willing to be checked out by their doctor anyway.

4. Help your loved one go to the doctor.

If your loved one is able, ask them to make an appointment with their primary care doctor. If you think your loved one might not be able to do this on their own, ask in a non-judgmental way if you can make the appointment for them and ask if you can attend the appointment with them.

If your loved one says no, write your concerns in a letter, and ask them to take the letter to the doctor with them. You can also call, mail, or email your letter to the doctor. You might also ask if they'd be willing to have a friend or another family member go with them to the doctor. This can be a good option if you live in another city.

It’s important for your loved one to see the primary care doctor first because this doctor can run tests to see if there are any medical problems or vitamin deficiencies causing the memory problems. Bring or mail your written observations to the doctor, and remember to include the specific examples and timeline from the first two items above. Tell the doctor that you're concerned, and ask if they can help figure out what can be causing memory loss.

Sometimes something as simple as Vitamin B-12 deficiency, sleep problems, medication interactions, or urinary tract infection (which is common in both older men and women) can be the reason, or it can be something more complicated, requiring more testing. If it is more complicated, the doctor can refer your loved one to a neurologist or another specialist for more evaluation.

5. Be respectful.

When you're at the doctor, don’t jump in and talk over your loved one, or undermine them. Allow your loved one and their doctor to talk to each other first. It can be really helpful for the doctor to hear how your loved one is talking and processing information.

Plus, your loved one needs to be able to trust the doctor. If you jump in too soon, it begins to chip away at the time they need to build their relationship and might make your loved one less likely to bring you to future appointments. I regularly hear from my patients that they're not going to let their family members in their medical appointments anymore because their family members spoke the entire time.

After the doctor and your loved one have a few minutes together, ask your loved one if it would be OK for you to share your concerns with the doctor. Even if your loved one has dementia and doesn’t know who you are, they're still an adult human being and need to be treated like one. I get it. You're super stressed, worried about your loved one. Maybe you're visiting just for this appointment and want to get everything in and only have 20 minutes with the doctor. I hear you. But please be respectful. This will help you and your loved one in the long run.

Sometimes older adults outright refuse to go to the doctor; if this is happening in your family, check out my blog post on this very topic.

Important Note:

In extreme cases, you may need to call 911 or take your loved one to the ER immediately, even if they're refusing. If you're unsure, please call your loved one's medical provider or 911 for guidance.