Bill had been acting strangely for a while, and Ruth was beginning to worry. He was having a hard time finding things,and kept accusing Ruth of moving them. As time passed, he would ask the same questions over and over again. He was struggling to remember the names of some of their oldest and dearest friends. When he was frustrated, his words eluded him, which further increased his frustration. He began to follow Ruth around, as he was afraid to be alone. More than once he started to cook something on the stove, and then forgot that it was on there. Ruth knew he was losing his memory, but she put off taking him to see the doctor. Maybe if she covered for him, or reminded him of things, he would improve. In her heart, she wasn’t sure how much longer she could watch over him and keep him safe.
Ruth’s situation is not unique. It is repeated many times over in the lives of countless seniors. Not only is Ruth in her golden years, and experiencing the effects of aging herself, she has no experience whatsoever in dealing with the many issues and challenges that are coming her way. She is facing intense demands, with no idea how to manage the new change in their lives. That change being the onset of dementia.
So what is dementia? Dementia is the deterioration of intellectual faculties, such as memory, concentration, and judgment. This deterioration results from an organic disease, or a disorder of the brain. It is sometimes accompanied by emotional disturbance, and changes in personality. There are numerous diseases or brain injuries that can cause dementia, and some people have more than one cause.
As the executive director of a Seattle area memory care community, I see people like Bill and Ruth every day. Ruth is an excellent wife loving, committed. She didn’t ask for this problem, but it has unexpectedly fallen into her hands. She loves her husband dearly, and really wants to do what is best for him. After all, their wedding vows said, “For better or for worse;” This is just the “worse.” So, she launches herself into the future, feeling her way along in the dark. She is anxious, frustrated, tired, and overwhelmed. Sadly, Ruth is really at a loss, and doesn’t know what to do.
So, what do you do? Where do you go? How do you cope? Her first hurdle in doing the right thing for Bill is to face her fear and lack of knowledge. This is not the time to “wing it,” or let fear and denial get the best of her. Bill cannot help himself, and he needs an advocate that can bring some knowledge and direction into the situation. So here are the first steps to be taken when this moment arrives:
Assessment & Diagnosis The first step is to make sure she gets a good assessment of Bill’s condition. Taking him to his primary care physician is a good start, but he should also be seen by a specialist to try to narrow down the diagnosis. A neurologist, a geriatric physician, or a geriatric psychiatrist is recommended. These specialists concentrate their practice on these types of disorders, and are likely to have a wider range of options for their patients. The brain is a complex organ and much of it remains a mystery to the medical world, even though science has made many breakthroughs in understanding issues of the brain. New medications and information are coming out all the time. It’s important to get connected to current information.An early diagnosis can make a remarkable difference in the treatment of memory loss, and may give Bill more time with better function.
Evaluate Medication Picture Make sure Bill receives a thorough evaluation of all his medications, to see if there are any serious drug interactions that may be playing a role in the symptoms. Some Alzheimer’s type symptoms can be caused by too much medication, or a reaction to one or more medications over a period of time. Using a single pharmacy is always a good idea, so that a good pharmacist can monitor risks when multiple drugs are being consumed.
Communicate With Medical Staff If the first recommendations for Bill aren’t improving the situation measurably, Ruth must make sure to stay in communication with Bill’s physicians and pharmacist to let them know. She will need to advocate for Bill, and follow up to see that he gets the help he needs.
When Ruth connects with the appropriate medical personnel,handling medical bills and care will be easier and more comforting. This is not a time to go it alone it is a time to connect with others. Ruth will now be on her way to facing the challenges ahead, with the appropriate support and confidence she needs.