HELP LINE: Don’t forget the warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease

LAST WEEK I presented, verbatim, the Alzheimer’s Associations’ “Principles for a Dignified Diagnosis” because I thought it was important.

I still do.

Another thing that column did, though, is bring the whole conversation about Alzheimer’s back into the front of our collective mind.

Many of us have been closer to that dark disease than we ever wanted to be, and many of us are in it — or standing next to it — right now.

And even more of us, because we have been close to it, are terrified of it.

And, for good reason.

Fear inevitably brings vulnerability.

We “see” that boogeyman around every corner, under every bed and lurking in every closet.

That’s not to say that fear of Alzheimer’s is childish — far from it — but, sometimes, the fear itself can be disabling.

Because of that, and because of what I’ve heard from a lot of you, let’s work through the 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s, one at a time, and see how far we can get.

When I feel the need to insert my own comment, I’ll signal it with “(M),” so you can clearly know what is (and, what isn’t) my opinion.

OK? Let’s do this:

• Memory changes that disrupt daily life. For instance, forgetting something recently learned or asking for the same information/answer repeatedly, or relying on memory aids or family members for things that used to be handled alone.

(M): Remember, there’s nothing wrong with “memory aids,” such as notes or lists. In fact, I’d call those smart. Personally, I rely on them. And most of us forget this or that detail or name or whatever. The key here is “… disrupt daily life …” as opposed to being frustrating or just downright annoying.

• Challenges in planning or solving problems. Problems developing a simple plan, working with numbers or even following a familiar recipe. Other examples might be difficulty keeping track of bills, concentrating or taking longer to do common tasks.

(M): We all get distracted and many of us can just be “mixed-up,” and some of us don’t excel at arithmetic. Personally, I can’t follow a simple recipe on the best day of my life. The key here is change: Are you seeing things like this that constitute a change in the person’s usual behavior?

• Difficulty completing familiar tasks. Trouble with the regular, old daily stuff? Trouble driving to once-familiar places or remembering the rules of a favorite game?

(M): Again, look for change. And remember that there are things besides Alzheimer’s that could cause some of this, such as a sickness or medication or … depression? Or, about 30 other things — Alzheimer’s might be one of them.

• Confusion with time or place. This is just what it sounds like: Losing track of dates, seasons, passage of time, or more frighteningly, forgetting where one is or how one got there.

(M): Many of us lose track of the day or the date on a vacation — retirement is legendary for inducing for that “symptom.” And I’m “legendary” among my colleagues for asking, “What day is this?” Because I have too much stuff going on in my head, so Tuesday can look a lot like Thursday. We are who we are and, again, look for change. And if a person honestly doesn’t know where they are or how they got there, it might (or might not) be Alzheimer’s, but it’s something, and that something would get my attention.

• Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships. Huh? This refers to a diminishing ability to track one’s visual surroundings, such as difficulty reading, trouble judging distance or problems determining color or contrast.

(M): Like change, the key word to me in this is “diminishing;” Yes, a person might just need new glasses …

• New problems with words in speaking or writing. This could be problems joining or following a conversation, such as stopping in the middle of a sentence because the person is unable to continue or repeating something already said. It can also be difficulty finding the right word or calling things the wrong name.

(M): OK, we all have our moments of not being able to come up with that word — “It’s on the tip of my tongue” — so a one-time lapse in the ability to immediately come up with the word “sub-orbital,” might be less than diagnostically significant. Still, if there’s a pattern …

And it’s already apparent to me that we not going to get through all 10 of the “warning signs” today, so let’s stop here and pick it up next week.

Remember, please, that except for my little editorial comments, I’m not giving you any information here that isn’t readily available on the Alzheimer’s Association website at, along with a lot more genuinely valuable (and practical) information.

It’s the best way to take the fear away.


Mark Harvey is director of Clallam/Jefferson Senior Information & Assistance, which operates through the Olympic Area Agency on Aging. He is also a member of the Community Advocates for Rural Elders partnership. He can be reached at 360-452-3221 (Port Angeles-Sequim), 360-385-2552 (Jefferson County) or 360-374-9496 (West End), or by emailing [email protected].

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