Is it Normal? Or is it Alzheimer's

Dr. Marilyn Fitzpatrick, Partner at Medipsy Psychological Services

elephant profile headI used to have the memory of an elephant. I remembered the names of people I met at parties and things I had to get done by Tuesday at noon. These days, I go through a fair size package of post-it notes to get through the month. As we age, we often have more difficulty remembering things the way we used to when we were younger. And of course, the question that lurks in the backs of the mind is, “Could this be Alzheimer’s?” You may have an aging parent and be asking yourself, “Is this a normal part of getting old or should I be concerned?” So here are a few guidelines, hopefully to reassure you, or at least to indicate if it is time to take steps.

Let’s say you forget the name of the person you just met, or as you go to write down a phone number, you can’t recall the last two digits. This can just be normal forgetting or lack of attention, and on its own is not cause for concern. The kind of forgetting that is more of a problem is not being able to remember what you did recently. For example, did your mother forget that she just had lunch an hour ago? This is not usually in the category of normal forgetting. Words also get forgotten. There are times when I get to the middle of a sentence and the word I am looking for just will not come. It is frustrating, it is embarrassing, but it is also normal. But it is not normal if I think that the thing that I use to comb my hair is called a cup. Forgetting words is in the normal range, using words incorrectly is not. Similarly, if I misplace my glasses or my keys (even if I do it often), there is probably no cause for my husband to be concerned. But if I start keeping my glasses in the freezer because I think that they belong there, please call my doctor. If your Dad used to be a crossword whiz and he is not as fast as he used to be, don’t panic. If he is slower at balancing his checkbook, that is probably not a problem but, if he forgets how to add or subtract, or forgets what to do with the phone, it is time to get help.

do I have dementia?

Other changes that are part of Alzheimer’s include a general sense of apathy or lack of initiative. Not wanting to do things can also be part of normal grieving. So, if Dad died a couple of months ago, Mom not being interested in things is not cause for alarm. But if there are no reasons that you can think of for the apathy, or if Mom seems often confused in familiar situations, or suddenly angry at nothing, assessment is probably a good idea. Finally, we all show poor judgment at times, a bad investment or a bad choice of hair color are unfortunate but not symptomatic. But if you notice your friend using poor judgment about everyday tasks – going outside in winter without a coat – take notice.

I hope that these examples give greater peace of mind. But if you think that there may be cause for concern, a memory assessment with a neuropsychologist can give you a clearer idea if there is a problem

This article was written by Dr. Marilyn Fitzpatrick. Dr. Fitzpatrick is a 65-year old Professor of Counselling Psychology at McGill University and Partner in Medipsy Psychological Services in Westmount (www.medipsy.ca, 514-419-3005). Medipsy offers assessments and services for seniors.

Note: This article is for informative purposes only. Always check with a medical professional.


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