The aging of a parent can be a bittersweet time. In many cases, we now have children of our own. Children bring an immeasurable amount of joy to our lives and often gives our parents a rebirth of purpose. For many aging adults, having grandchildren, or even just witnessing the accomplishments of their children, catalyzes a revival of spirit that lights up the golden years.
However, as our parents age, a long-anticipated reversal of the roles takes hold. We, as children, are now responsible for looking after and offering comfort for the individuals who raised us. With this development, our perceptions of reality are often skewed as our emotions muddy our understanding of the physical and mental health difficulties common to an aging generation.
In honor of National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month, we want to help you understand what is included in normal aging and what may be signs of Alzheimer's disease. First, we must distinguish the difference between dementia and Alzheimer's.
Distinguishing Dementia from Alzheimer's Disease
Sometimes used interchangeably, dementia is an umbrella term for a non-exact group of symptoms associated with decreasing cognitive ability. Dementia is considered a syndrome because its symptom profile is not precise. Aging parents may have more than one type of dementia, known as ‘mixed dementia,' and one case may look very different from another. It is also curable in some instances. On the other hand, Alzheimer's is a disease, one with a specific set of criteria for diagnosis and is progressive with currently no cure.
Understanding Memory Loss: Aging or Alzheimer's?
As caring children, we are constantly on edge, worried that anything less than complete mental clarity is an early-stage warning sign that degenerative mental disease is taking hold. There are some subtle distinctions in memory loss that can help you distinguish between normal signs of aging and Alzheimer's disease, which is not a normal nor inevitable part of aging.
Specific Versus Global Memory Loss: Many individuals forget specific tasks or dates as they enter old age. For example, forgetting an upcoming dentist appointment or how to get to a store you have not been to in years are not necessarily signs of Alzheimer's disease. These are examples of specific memory losses and come with getting older. However, not knowing how to behave at a doctor’s appointment, or not knowing where to go to buy groceries, demonstrates a more global memory loss that may be symptomatic of early Alzheimer’s disease.
Temporary Versus Permanent Memory loss: The Alzheimer's Association shares that the time frame and duration in which information is lost can indicate Alzheimer's Disease. For example, the elderly may briefly forget their grandchild's favorite food or what their pet dog is named, only to remember the information minutes or hours later. For those with Alzheimer's though, the memory may not return at all. As children of aging parents, it is important for us to pay attention to the form of information lost and if the loss appears to be permanent.
Reading Between the Lines: Atypical Signs of Alzheimer’s
We have highlighted the distinction between actions commonly associated with aging and those aligned with Alzheimer's Disease. As a rule of thumb, consider the depth of a loved one's memory loss and determine if it seems to be a symptom of something deeper. Alas, just as there are common geriatric actions misappropriated to Alzheimer's, there are some sneaky symptoms of Alzheimer's outside of memory loss that you may want to keep your eye out for when interacting with your parents. If your mom or dad seems to be apathetic towards hobbies or activities they use to love, or if they are unkempt, ignoring basic hygiene, you may want to talk with them and their doctor. These actions demonstrate a "closing in" mentality prevalent in individuals with Alzheimer's Disease, where they limit their activities and routines.
Furthermore, studies have shown that indifference in the elderly is linked to the development of early-stage Alzheimer's. Additionally, if your mom or dad is always questioning aspects of their environment, it may indicate anxiety tied to an increased forgetfulness.
We hope this synopsis of the differences between aging and Alzheimer's Disease will give you peace of mind in caring for your parents as they age.