The topic of getting old tends to be something people shy away from. But along with general conversations about old age come more touchy subjects like Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
According to Natalie Besser, care consultant at the Alzheimer’s Association Cleveland area chapter; Kristen Morelli, director of memory care and resident life at Montefiore; and Dr. Evan Shelton, director of Menorah Park’s Center 4 Brain Health, all in Beachwood; and Lori Wengerd, owner and president of Home Care Assistance Columbus in Upper Arlington, discussing memory conditions can be tricky, especially if a family member is displaying the signs.
“Discussing memory impairment with a loved one can be an uncomfortable conversation for both parties,” Shelton said. “If you are concerned about the memory of someone close to you, it’s best to begin the conversation early. Symptoms like memory loss, difficulty with language, changes in mood or behavior, difficulty with familiar tasks and poor judgment are indicators of brain changes that shouldn’t be ignored.”
When attempting to broach the subject, Besser suggested families come up with a plan. Outlining exactly what you want to say can help the conversation go smoothly.
“Developing a plan to gently position the discussion makes for a positive outcome,” she noted. “Explain that these are standard plans that need to be made as we become older.”
Though there are common symptoms of memory diseases, Morelli noted the overall conversation will be very different based on each individual.
“It’s important to remember everyone’s journey with this disease is individual, as the saying goes, ‘when you have seen one person with Alzheimer’s, you have seen one person with Alzheimer’s,’” she explained. “Do not compare what you are seeing with your loved one with anyone else. The way people react to this disease differs based on where the disease travels to the brain.”
Wengerd said though Alzheimer’s can be scary, it’s not a conversation that needs to come together quickly.
“I recommend people to just take a deep breath,” she stated. “It’s not like this is a broken bone where everything needs to come together in two days. Of course, you don’t want to wait for months and months, but it doesn’t have to be talked about the next day. Take a moment and make that game plan.”
When talking about memory diseases, the most important thing to be aware of is tone. The professionals expressed younger family members tend to subconsciously take a belittling tone when talking to senior adults.
“What is important is that we remember though sometimes they may look and act like children, older adults have more skills than many of us,” Wengerd noted. “Older adults, even with cognitive impairment, have so much to offer. Talking down to them is scary and frustrating for the older individual. Younger family members tend to go into this ‘fix it’ mode instead of explaining what they are seeing and offering the opportunity to listen.”
Morelli added, “Having younger family members involved in the conversation often changes the dynamic of it. They need to remember to listen and be patient. This is a scary topic to discuss for anyone, so staying calm and speaking calmly is key. Remember to make the person you are concerned about part of the discussion. Do not simply talk at them and tell them facts or concerns.”
Shelton suggested coming to the conversation with an open mind. If a loved one has been recently diagnosed with a form of dementia, it is a very scary, confusing time.