HELP LINE: Not knowing is worse than knowing a diagnosis

LAST WEEK, BECAUSE the conversation about Alzheimer’s came up (because I brought it up), we started working through the “10 Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s,” courtesy of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Predictably, we didn’t get through all of them, so we’ll pick up where we left off.

And, as I did last week, where I feel the need to insert editorial comments, I’ll clearly identify them with “(M),” so you can discriminate between fact and my personal observations.

Ready? OK, we start with …

• Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps. Right, exactly what it says: Having increasing difficulty retracing steps to locate a missing item, but these two examples are two of the scariest for those of us who are (or have been) caregivers: (a) Putting things in unusual places, e.g. the wallet in the fruit bowl or (b) accusing others of stealing.

(M): OK, we can all space out, right? Like, you’ve just come home from the grocery store and you’re putting stuff in the fridge, you’re thinking about other things and … blam.

Two hours later you find your keys in the fridge. It happens, but not often.

As I kept stating last week, we’re not worrying about the odd incident or the temporary space-out, we’re looking for change in habits/patterns/ways and frequency.

And the one about accusing others of stealing is very common with Alzheimer’s — and frightening. And sad.

• Decreased or poor judgment. The examples given include wearing clothing inappropriate for the weather or season poor judgment with money, such as spending more impulsively, or giving large amounts to telemarketers.

(M): This second one comes up with startling regularity; it could be telemarketers, any form of internet scam or even door-to-door scams.

The operative term here is “poor judgment.”

I get a lot of emails from folks recounting a loved one’s seemingly less-than-responsible use of money, wondering if it’s Alzheimer’s.

My first question is always: Is this out of character?

If it is, we might have a problem.

If it isn’t, we definitely have a problem, but it probably isn’t Alzheimer’s.

• Withdrawal from work or social activities. You might see a person withdrawing from hobbies, social activities, work projects or even family gatherings.

Actually, you might see them forgetting how to engage in that favorite hobby.

You might see a person avoiding social situations altogether or even losing track of a favorite sports team (who’s winning?).

(M): Again, does what you’re seeing represent change in that person’s behavior?

Is it “out of character?”

• Changes in mood and personality. You’re seeing more and more displays of confusion, suspicion, fear, anxiety or agitation, etc.

And this deserves much more than a simple “(M).” This is the one that often “gets” us caregivers, or families.

If you read back over the preceding nine warning signs, I think you’ll find that you could rationalize or explain away almost any of them — all of them — on any given day.

In fact, look at my “(M)” comments: They’re almost alternative explanations or even “excuses.”

Now, I included those comments because I don’t want all of us to panic every time we see or do some silly little spaced-out thing, but a loved one could use those as rationalizations to ignore odd/disturbing behavior, because they love that person and they don’t want to see (or think about) Alzheimer’s.

I understand. Me, too.

But this last one, especially “… confusion, suspicion, fear …”, gets us because those displays are often at us.

And there’s no denying that.

This is the basis of most of the horror stories you’ve heard about “He’s just not the man I married, anymore” or “I lost my mom,” etc., … And they’re right.

Yes, there are things other than Alzheimer’s that could cause/explain “… displays of confusion, suspicion, fear, anxiety or agitation …”

And most of them are treatable in some kind of way.

So, what should you do?

In fact, what was the point in printing these warning signs at all? Right.

Get them to a medical professional and get diagnosed, and do it right now.

Don’t waste time hoping it will “go away” or that “things might change.”

Yes, things might change, but probably not for the better.

If the diagnosis isn’t Alzheimer’s, good.

What is it? Treat it.

But if it is, the sooner you know — the sooner both of you know — the better things will go.

Please trust me on this one.

If you see enough of these signs to be genuinely concerned, get a diagnosis.

I understand, better than you might think, that you may not want to know, but here’s something you want even less:

Not knowing.


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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