|photo by kentoh via Dollar Photo Club|
I'm writing today as one of the forgotten, one of those left behind in the fog of Alzheimer's disease that took over someone I loved.
The first time this happened was in the late 1980's, when, as a 20-something, I didn't know much about this disease and didn't understand why Auntie Gilda had to live in a nursing home and didn't recognize me when I came to call. She was my mother's oldest sister by 15 years, more like the grandmother I never had than an aunt, who coddled me as a child and expressed great joy when I took the time to visit her as a young adult.
Heartbroken is too weak of a word to describe how I felt when she looked right through me as I took her hands and said hello in the crowded corridor of the dementia ward.
She was not the first aunt to forget me, and not the last, and my story is not unique as I am among the millions of people who have been left behind by parents, spouses, brothers, sisters, and in some cases children who are afflicted with Alzheimer's and other dementias.
This is a disease shrouded in hopelessness, where little can be done to cure, prevent, or stall its progression.
It's a primary concern of the elderly: Will I get Alzheimer's? My mother, father, sister, brother, grandmother had it. Am I next?
It's a worry of those with aging parents: Mom seems forgetful. Is it Alzheimer's?
When memory problems surface, even simple problems like searching for familiar words, forgetting an acquaintance's name, misplacing the car keys again, the thought train that maybe it's Alzheimer's starts roaring down the tracks.
All of this is usually needless worry as many of these behaviors are normal, natural, and no cause for concern. They could be symptoms of a medical problem unrelated to any dementia. Still, some of us stay up nights worrying: What if it's Alzheimer's?
Which is why it's important to include a memory check as part of your annual physical. Healthcare providers recommend routine screenings for a variety of conditions: hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, and cancers such as skin, colorectal, breast and prostate. A memory check is another exam you should do annually, to make sure your cognitive function is intact.
November 1-7 is National Memory Screening Week, and a great time to not only perform this check for yourself but for your loved ones, especially your elders, who may be experiencing cognitive decline. Memory screenings are for those concerned about memory loss or those experiencing warning signs of cognitive decline, whether or not there is a family history of dementia or Alzheimer's. If friends or family are making comments about your mental acuity, a screening may be beneficial, whether you take one at your physician's office, your local senior center, or at home.
If you’re asking yourself any of the following questions, it’s time for a screening:
- Am I becoming more forgetful?
- Do I have trouble concentrating?
- Do I have difficulty performing familiar tasks?
- Do I have trouble recalling words or names in conversation?
- Do I sometimes forget where I am or where I am going?
- Have family or friends told me that I am repeating questions or repeating myself?
- Am I misplacing things more often?
- Have I become lost when walking or driving?
- Have my family or friends noticed changes in my mood, behavior, personality, or desire to do things?
Your healthcare provider (physician, nurse practitioner, physician's assistant) can administer a screening test, and many community organizations do so through the Alzheimer's Foundation of America. Self-administered at-home tests are another option. These tests take only minutes and may help determine if further investigation is needed. However, these tests should never be a substitute for a professional medical evaluation if one suspects cognitive impairment or decline. Proper medical evaluation of potential memory issues includes a consultation with a physician, a complete physical exam, a thorough review of health history, and diagnostic tests.
At the very least, simple at-home screening tests can open up dialogue, and introduce important discussions about what can happen if dementia or Alzheimer's strikes, and how individuals prefer to be treated if it does.
Schedule a memory screening test with your healthcare provider this week, or visit Community Memory Screening and Awareness-Raising Education: The Road to Early Detection and Care (AFA C.A.R.E.S.) to find a local screening center in your community.
- The Self-Administered Gerocognitive Exam (SAGE), a 10-15 minute, 4-page, paper and pen test offered by The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
- The Mini-Cog Test for Alzheimer's and Dementia, a simple three minute test that is useful in detecting mild cognitive impairment, dementia, or an early stage of Alzheimer's.
Alzheimer's Daughter, Jean Lee
On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer's, Greg O'Brien
Somebody Stole My Iron: A Family Memoir of Dementia, Vicki Tapia
What Flowers Remember, Shannon Wiersbitzky
Blue Hydrangeas, an Alzheimer's love story, Marianne Sciucco
The Alzheimer's Association