by Juliet Holt Klinger
06 December 2018

Going home for the holidays is a cherished tradition. But getting home and realizing your parents need more help than expected can overshadow the reunion. It’s not unusual for adult children to miss signs of cognitive trouble during a weekly phone call, but it’s certainly easier to notice during a face-to-face visit.

Some cognitive changes are normal as we age, like forgetting where you put an item or taking a few seconds longer to search for a name of an acquaintance. Think of the brain as a file cabinet that is filled with new information we are storing all the time, and by the time we are in our eighth and ninth decade, there are many files to sift through. However, cognitive changes that disrupt daily life, like forgetting recently learned information, trouble carrying on a conversation, or difficulty completing a familiar task may indicate that there is a bigger issue. If you notice any of these signs when you’re home this holiday season, it might be time to talk to your loved one about their cognitive well-being.

Social isolation

Did your mom stop attending her weekly Bunco game? Maybe your dad no longer meets his buddies at the gym for basketball? Cognitive changes often lead to social withdrawal because it is hard to keep up with the activity, or they are trying to hide their memory difficulties.

Changes in appearance

Is your mom is wearing dirty clothes? Or does your dad have stubble on his usually clean-shaven face? If your parent is no longer taking care of their grooming and physical appearance like they once did, it might be a sign of an underlying cognitive issue.  

Weight loss or gain

Changes in weight may indicate that your loved one is no longer able to grocery shop for themselves or prepare a healthy meal. They may also be forgetting to eat, or overeating. Check the fridge and cabinets. Does your parent have the items on hand they usually do? Are there signs that they are keeping food too long or replacing meals with snacks?

Change in mood or personality

Dementia affects parts of the brain that control mood and personality and depression is a very common symptom of early dementia. Take note if your loved one is suddenly suspicious, confused, depressed or anxious, especially if there is not an apparent reason or cause.

Challenges planning activities or solving problems

Do you notice stacks of unpaid bills? Can your mom no longer follow a recipe or plan a meal? Many people living with early dementia have problems concentrating or initiating a plan.

Confusion with time or place

Getting lost or confused in familiar places, forgetting the date or season are common signs of cognitive changes. For example, is your mom dressed for summer even though it’s snowing outside? Did your dad get disoriented in the grocery store?

Misplacing items

While it’s common to misplace an item, it is an issue if your loved one can’t retrace their steps or if they put objects in unusual places. For example, if the remote is in the fridge or their keys are in the medicine cabinet.

Poor judgment

Have your parents recently fallen for a telemarketing scam or made a bad decision with money? Dementia makes it difficult to evaluate different factors that go into decision making.  

Making off-color or profane comments

Using swear words or making inappropriate jokes when that is not your parent’s typical style can be an early sign that cognitive changes are happening.

If you notice any of these signs in your parents and are worried they might be developing dementia, make an appointment with a physician who can evaluate their symptoms and discuss next steps. While an initial diagnosis can be overwhelming, early detection is important so you can plan for the future. Most importantly, enjoy your time together over the holidays. Spend time doing activities you love and making lasting memories with your loved ones.   

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