The holiday season is often a time of celebration, reunion, and reminiscence for families and friends. Many families take the opportunity during this time of the year to visit with parents and grandparents, that they may not get to see on a regular basis. If that is your family this year, we hope your holidays are filled with new memories and wonderful moments.
However, for many families, especially those with older parents or grandparents, the holidays can be a stressful time. For some, their visits over this time of year will hold unexpected changes in their loved ones physical or mental health, and these discoveries can create many questions, and lead to difficult decisions.
How do I know if my loved one is experiencing cognitive decline?
Assessing and diagnosing dementia and cognitive decline is a difficult process, and should always be approached with the help and direction of your loved one's physician, and ideally, a neurologist.
However, there are some things you can look for to help you understand if your loved one is experiencing cognitive decline. In addition to noticing things like forgetfulness or memory loss, watch for signs of the following:
1. Difficulty with simple or normal group activities
Often, during the holidays, families will do things together like Christmas shopping, caroling, attend church services, or cook and bake holidays treats. If your loved one is experiencing cognitive decline, and possibly dementia, you might notice some unusual behavior. Your loved one might become cold and quiet, when normally they would be outgoing and festive. They might become agitated or frustrated in group settings where they would normally be interactive and friendly.
Your loved one is likely to dismiss such behavior to fatigue or disinterest, but if you find your loved one acting very out of character in these settings, it might be time to have a conversation. As the brain begins to decline with the onset of dementia, your loved one will be experiencing difficulty with focus, detail-oriented tasks, and conversations that involve more than one or two people. Often, a person living with dementia will try to mask this difficulty by becoming introverted, or by expressing frustration with people or details out of their control.
2. Significant loss of weight or decline in personal hygiene
If your loved one lives alone, and is experiencing cognitive decline, while visiting for the holidays, you may notice that they appear much thinner than when you last saw them, or that they seem to have let their personal hygiene slide. If you're able to visit with them in their home, check the fridge and freezer for unopened packages or microwave meals. Look for food in the pantry that might be out of date or expired. Often, those living with dementia have difficulty with the complexities of cooking and meal preparation, and they will opt for non-nutritious, microwaveable options instead.
Remembering simple routines, like morning and evening hygiene, can become increasingly difficult for those with dementia. They will forget to shower, brush their teeth, or get their haircut regularly. Check the soap and shampoo in their shower, hand soap, and toothpaste tubes.
3. Repetitive actions or conversations
While celebrating with your loved one, you might notice that they are repeating the same action over and over - cleaning a counter-top or checking the mail or polishing silverware. You might notice that they ask the same questions, perhaps about a relative or family friend, or tell a recent story, over and over.
Don't become frustrated with your loved one, or try to correct them. Recognize what might be happening, and offer them patience and love.
The holidays should be a wonderful time to celebrate and enjoy the company of your loved one. If you think they might be experiencing cognitive decline, have a conversation with their physician, and ask about seeing a neurologist.
We wish you and your family all the blessings of the holidays!