Saturday, May 23, 2009

Age Related Changes and Memory Loss

When I was a Family Caregiving Consultant people who had not lived with their elderly relatives in years would come to me in a panic about behavior that smacked of dementia. They had a family gathering at the house, came for a more extended visit, or even needed to move in together for a particular period of time, and what they saw frightened them.

Now my partner Paul and I are temporarily living with his elderly parents. Neither one has Alzheimer's Disease. Both have been getting by but what we're seeing is throwing my earlier client contacts into a different light.

I remember hearing: "My grandmother stays in her bathrobe almost all day long!"

Yep. Occasionally, I do, too, on my day off when there's no one around to see me do it. If grandma has been living on her own and is "on her day off" all the time, why shouldn't she do what makes her feel comfy and cozy?

"Mom takes hours to get dressed or make dinner!"

Yep, why not? There's nothing to hurry for.

Now, I'm not going to say we haven't seen behavior that completely freaks us out. One of Paul's parents has judgment lapses that would get her declared "incompetent" in an instant if this wasn't a lifelong pattern of decision-making. "She's always been like that!" I hear again and again. "It just happens more now. She doesn't care about those things and never has!"

In context, it's just a progression of the same old thing. Jumping in fresh or after a long absence, the progression make no sense. It's crazy! It's "dementia"! We have to do something!

And maybe you will have to intervene sooner or later. After all, there has been an increase in these behaviors. And there is at least age-related memory loss.

But trust me, the parents won't feel that way. They've been compensating for these changes for a decade or more. "We've gotten this far," they think. "What the hell are you so worried about? Big deal, if I leave a pan on the stove. Haven't you ever done that? Big deal, if I go to a party and forget my teeth! I've done it before! And yeah, I even bounced a check or two this month. Stop snooping into my business. (You have no idea how many times I did that when I was younger, too!)"

Most people's parents handle their aging with an acceptance and flexibility their children can't imagine. Things change gradually, they adjust, they make do, they adjust some more. But then there's one last adjustment and things fall apart. That's when the kids can step in. It's nice if you can plan ahead for that. It's even better if the parents will help you help them before things fall apart.

But they have to be willing to allow you to be involved. Before then, it's a terrible interference into a life that's being independently, and even somewhat gracefully, lived.