Dear Dr. Beal:
My mom is almost 77 years old and for the first time I have noticed that she is having some difficulties with her memory. She has started to forget things and she repeats herself. It seems that this behavior has come out of no where and has started since COVID-19. Before now she was active and lived by herself without any problems. She has been my rock. I cannot imagine her being any different. Can you tell me about dementia?
I don’t know if being in a pandemic is the cause of her sudden memory loss or if the stress is a contributing factor. However, there is not one person who has not been affected by this pandemic. Consequently, one unfortunate population in our Society that may have been hit the hardest by COVID-19 is the elderly; our Senior Citizens. Research indicates that the senior citizen population had the highest risk of falling victim to the virus and have less chances of surviving. This is due to the elderly having pre-existing comorbidities, which unfortunately placed them at higher risk for death. Just the idea alone can cause someone to almost immediately become worried, paranoid and frantic. This uncertainty and fear have surely affected the elderly population as they are aware of their overall health vulnerabilities. This can greatly impact the mental health of the elderly because they will begin to worry excessively about dying. They can become depressed and anxious over the idea that they cannot see their loved ones and fear that they themselves may be the infected ones and could not deal with the guilt of exposing others, especially their loved ones.
As a result, we see the majority of our ‘stay put- social distancing’ listeners are the Senior Citizen population. We cannot forget our Elders. They are human beings, just like everyone else; and it is proven that we all need human touch. And, this does not mean any human touch, like nurses, doctors and social workers. They need to hear familiar voices and feel human touch of their ‘loved ones.’
It is hard to determine if it is the stress of the current situation or if your mom is at the beginning stages of dementia. I am glad that you were there to witness her new behavior.
Here are some of the warning signs identified by dementia experts and mental health organizations:
• Difficulty with everyday tasks. Everyone makes mistakes, but people with dementia may find it increasingly difficult to do things like keep track of monthly bills or follow a recipe while cooking, the Alzheimer’s Association says.
They also may find it hard to concentrate on tasks, take much longer to do them or have trouble finishing them.
• Repetition. Asking a question, hearing the answer and then repeating the same question 15 minutes later, or telling the same story about a recent event multiple times, are causes for concern, internist and geriatric specialist Jason Karlawish, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, noted in a 2018 article for AARP.
• Communication problems. Observe if a loved one has trouble joining in conversations or following along with them, stops abruptly in the middle of a thought or struggles to think of words or the name of objects.
• Getting lost. People with dementia may have difficulty with visual and spatial abilities. That can manifest itself in problems like getting lost while driving, according to the Mayo Clinic.
• Personality changes. A loved one who begins acting unusually anxious, confused, fearful or suspicious; becomes upset easily; or loses interest in activities and seems depressed is cause for concern.
• Confusion about time and place. Loved ones who forget where they are or can’t remember how they got there should raise alarms. Another worrisome sign is a person becoming disoriented about time — for example, asking on a Friday whether it’s Monday or Tuesday, according to Karlawish.
• Troubling behavior. If your family member seems to have increasingly poor judgment when handling money or neglects grooming and cleanliness, pay attention.
Some people who experience memory loss or have difficulty with attention, decision-making language or reasoning may have a condition known as mild cognitive impairment. The condition causes a noticeable decline, but the changes are less severe than with dementia and a person can still perform normal daily activities, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
People with mild cognitive impairment are at an increased risk of developing dementia.
Our society sells billions of products every day to prevent people from getting older. However, the reality of life is that if we keep waking up daily, we will become older. Throughout that aging process things happen to us that we don’t want to, and the aches and pains become a reality. The elderly, like children, are vulnerable. We must ensure that we are caring for our Senior Citizens and their overall well-being. There are cultures that do not care for the elderly but that does not appear to be for the African American community, in general. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.
I would recommend taking your mom to her family doctor first and getting an opinion. The next steps could be a neurologist or psychiatrist. Counseling can also be important and can be done through Telehealth/ Telemedicine.
As you navigate through the system of your mom’s care, maintain a certain amount of calmness and extreme caring. This time may be equally as difficult for her to accept. She will always be your mom but look at it that now you can take care of her. One should ensure that we repeatedly provide reassurance to our elders that they are safe. It is the expectation that we ensure the safety of them and not forget to provide ongoing emotional support as this is vital to fighting off an onset of them feeling lonely and afraid.
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“Good Mental Health Equals Mental Wealth”