Dealing with Dementia and Signs of Mental Impairment
Don’t ignore warning signs and red flags. Take action right away. Symptoms of dementia won’t get better by doing nothing.
Everyone forgets things now and then and you may be tempted to think your elderly parent’s forgetfulness is simply a sign of aging. Forgetfulness and other symptoms may be signs of normal aging, or they could be a signal of something more serious like dementia.
Potential for Dementia
As your parents age, the likelihood they will experience an age-related cognitive disability such as dementia increases. Dementia isn’t a specific disease but is a term describing symptoms caused by disorders that affect the brain such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. People with dementia have severely impaired intellectual functioning. This impairment interferes with normal daily activities and personal relationships. Your parent may lose the ability to solve problems and may experience personality changes, delusions, or hallucinations.
Dementia impairs their mental capacity and makes it difficult or impossible for them to make decisions of all types including those affecting their health or legal situation. In advanced cases of dementia, the person can be declared legally incompetent which means they aren’t able to participate in any legal transactions such as signing a will or executing a contract. (Buchanon, 2004)
You may be worried about hurting your parent’s feelings or damaging your relationship with them, but it’s important to take action early on to determine if your parent’s symptoms are a sign of competency problems. If you wait until a crisis happens, it may too late to take action.
The symptoms of dementia include:
- Forgetfulness and confusion
- Not bathing
- Poor judgment, especially related to financial transactions
- Asking the same questions over and over
- Frequently misplacing items
- Having trouble remembering names
- Getting lost in familiar areas
- Having trouble following conversations
If your parent exhibits any of the above symptoms, a conversation with them is in order. It’s important to recognize that these symptoms may not always signal dementia. It’s often very difficult to distinguish memory problems and other cognitive changes common in normal aging from the early symptoms of dementia. Other health issues that can cause some of the same symptoms as dementia are:
- Illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease
- Improper nutrition
- Vision or hearing loss
Dealing with Dementia
Medication may be able to resolve these other health issues allowing your parent to regain the capacity to make decisions.
If you think your parent is experiencing dementia, encourage them to get a physical and mental health evaluation by a licensed professional. Your parent may already be aware that their cognitive skills are in decline but are in denial due to embarrassment or fear of losing control. A health evaluation can rule out other health-related issues or determine if medication is advised.
If the medical evaluation determines your parent does have dementia, take immediate steps to make the appropriate legal, financial and medical decisions while your parent is still competent. To execute any legal document including a power of attorney or advance health directive the person must be legally competent or the document is invalid.
If your parent’s symptoms increase, the only recourse may be to file for a conservatorship or guardianship proceeding through the court, which is a very costly and time-consuming process. Also, the individual filing for the guardianship may or may not be the person your parents would want to make decisions for them. It’s best to address these issues before the disease progresses and symptoms may make it difficult for your parent to take an active role in making decisions about their care and finances.
Work with your parent to make decisions about:
- Property or businesses they own
- Daily care and long-term health care needs
- Power of Attorney and Advance Directives
- Wills and Trusts
- Insurance policies
If your parent’s financial situation is complex, engage the services of an estate planning attorney or financial planner to help develop a long-term plan to make financial resources last as long as possible. Make sure that any financial advisor you engage is familiar with elder care and long-term care planning.
Impaired cognitive capacity may make your parent susceptible to exploitation by scammers and other disreputable people, especially if they live alone. You may need to take steps to protect their bank accounts and credit cards.
Early diagnosis of dementia can help you and your parent take advantage of treatments that may be available as well as plan ahead for the possibility of symptoms getting worse.
- Alec Buchanon, 2004. Mental capacity, legal competence and consent to treatment. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1079581/
- Justine Meador, n.d. Diagnosed with Dementia, Now What? Retrieved from https://www.alz.org/cacentral/documents/Dementia_Care_21-Diagnosed_with_Dementia_Now_What.pdf
- American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging & American Psychological Association. (2005). Assessment of older adults with diminished capacity: A handbook for lawyers, Washington, DC: American Bar Association and American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/aging/diminished_capacity.pdf