1. It’s the day we all hope will never come. The day when Mom gets lost driving home from the grocery store, when Dad can’t remember to pay the mortgage, when Aunt Sally starts repeating herself endlessly. It’s the day when we have to acknowledge to ourselves that our loved one has a memory problem.

    Most people instinctively want to stick their heads in the sand and pretend not to notice, but that’s the worst thing you can do as an adult caregiver. Instead you need to take action, and fast.

    Take Your Loved One to the Doctor

    It’s natural to assume that memory loss indicates a progressive, incurable disease like Alzheimer’s. All to often, it does. But there are other reversible conditions that can cause memory loss as well. That’s why getting your loved one to a doctor as soon as possible is very important.

    Don’t accept a fifteen minute visit followed by a vague diagnosis like, "Oh, what can you expect, she’s almost ninety."

    At the bare minimum, request that your loved one receive the following tests:

    • A complete physical exam
    • Blood work
    • A urinalysis to check for a urinary tract infection (UTI). UTIs can often cause confusion in older people
    • CT scan of the head
    • Thorough review of all prescribed medications and possible interactions
    • Screening for depression, as geriatric depression can also cause symptoms that mimic dementia

    Hopefully, these tests will turn up a treatable condition. There is always the possibility, however, that the diagnosis will be one of progressive dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia. Hearing that your loved one has a progressive illness is devastating, but there are still some steps you can take to improve your loved one’s quality of life.

    Ask About Medications

    As recently as twenty years ago, nothing could be done for dementia patients. Today, there are several medications on the market that may delay the disease process and keep your loved one functioning at his or her current level for years. Some of the more common medications prescribed for dementia include Aricept, Exelon and Namenda. Aricept and Namenda are often used together to treat Alzheimer’s patients.

    The medications do have side effects, the most common ones being nausea, vomiting, and a decrease in appetite. These side effects usually go away over time. Some people, however, may be unable to tolerate the medications.

    Help Your Loved One Get Affairs in Order

    While your loved one is still able to think relatively clearly, get plans and legal documents in place. It may be a good idea to consult an elder law attorney to make sure you’ve covered all your bases.

    At minimum, your loved one should complete

    • A will
    • A durable power of attorney for medical and financial decisions
    • An advance directive or living will
    • Estate planning
    • Funeral arrangements

    Additionally, make sure you know where your loved one keeps his or her important papers like financial documents, birth certificate, marriage license, and military discharge papers.

    Use Memory Aids to Help Your Loved One Function

    By the time you notice your loved one is experiencing memory loss, he or she will often have recognized it for months and perhaps even started to adapt to it. Many people who fear their memory is failing start leaving notes for themselves around the home–appointment reminders, "to do" lists, lists to remind them where cherished belongings are located.

    You can help by leaving notes for your loved one to remind him or her of important information. "Mom, I’m at a doctor’s appointment. I’ll be back by 1:00." "Dad, there’s leftover pizza in the fridge." "Take your two blue pills before you lie down for your nap."

    Another good memory aid is a calendar. Get a large calendar with plenty of space to write and make note of any important upcoming dates such as doctor’s appointments, get-togethers with friends and mortgage due dates.

    If you don’t live with your loved one, call him or her frequently to check in and offer reminders as needed. ("It’s time to take your morning pills now." "Don’t forget to check the locks before you go to bed.")

    Enjoy This Time with Your Loved One

    It’s so easy to focus on the fact that your loved one’s memory will eventually get worse that it can be hard to remember that today things are still pretty good. You can’t control the future, but you can control the memories you create for yourself now.

    Spend time with your loved one. Encourage him or her to share old family stories. Write them down or record them so that future generations can enjoy them as much as you do. Go through old family pictures and get your loved one to identify all the family members you don’t recognize.

    Don’t waste time fearing the future. Prepare for tomorrow as best you can and then put it out of your mind. Change will come when it comes. In the meantime, today is precious. Use it wisely. 

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