Memory loss can be a normal sign of aging; we all forget some things as we get older. If memory loss is limited to forgetting words occasionally, losing car keys or forgetting small appointments, this may not be cause for concern. If you notice your mom or dad getting increasingly forgetful of critical or everyday things, this may be cause for concern1.
It's not always a sign of Alzheimer's Disease
Memory loss can be caused by aging, and exacerbated by other factors that couple with aging. Other factors that can increase memory loss include depression and other health problems, ranging in seriousness from excessive use of alcohol to brain tumors. There are also other types of dementia (with symptoms including memory loss) similar to Alzheimer's Disease, that are in fact treatable and reversible.
Real reasons for concern
If you tell your parents something one day and they forget it the very next this may be more serious. Other more concerning manifestations of memory loss are getting lost in familiar neighbourhoods and forgetting very common words. There are several typical "turning point situations" where families definitely need to become serious about the possibility that their elderly loved one may be exhibiting signs of Alzheimer's or related dementias.
A fuller list of worrying manifestations related to memory loss is as follows:
- Disorientation while driving or walking in familiar places. Getting lost close to home, in a familiar neighbourhood, is one of the surest signs of the onset of something serious.
- Turning the stove on and forgetting about it. If this happens with any regularity, or if a dangerous situation has arisen, this can be cause to take mom or dad to a doctor.
- Forgetting simple words that are used every day, or notably odd problems with words, such as inventing new words for common things (e.g. calling a clock "the wall time")
- Sundown Syndrome, especially if mom or dad has uncontrolled angry outbursts.
- Incontinence. There are several classes of this condition: urge incontinence (not related to stress or a lack of mobility) can absolutely be a sign that something serious is going wrong with your mom or dad. Any incontinence should receive medical attention.
- Losing weight can be a sign that they are, in fact, forgetting to eat.
- Behaviour repetitions that indicate a loss of short term memory. This can include calling repeatedly or asking the same question repeatedly when the answer ought to have been remembered.
- Difficulty performing simple tasks they ought to be familiar with.
- Impaired judgement based on not recognizing typical needs. An example of this is forgetting to put on a coat when it is clearly too cold out.
- Forgetting scheduled items regularly
- Putting things in strange places (e.g. sugar bowl in the freezer)
- Forgetting oft-used or very familiar names, such as pets, grandchildren or children.
- Withdrawal due to the need to hide confusion.
These are all serious signs that you need to get medical help for your aging parent.
Be aware that your aging loved one may be embarrassed about this loss of memory and may not report it honestly due to embarrassment. This embarrassment or evasion can delay proper diagnosis. In turn, this can delay proper interventions, including therapies and drugs that can inhibit the disease's development. As is well known, drug interventions in Alzheimer's care are more effective earlier on.
If checking into these symptoms leads to a diagnosis, or if you see an increased manifestation of these symptoms in a parent already diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease, this may be time to start investigating Alzheimer's care facilities or home health services near you.
If you have concerns, it is best to discuss things with parents when you yourself are at your absolute calmest. Avoid confrontational language or accusatory tones. Get the opinion of a medical expert. There are other explanations for memory loss including simply aging.