As we looked for a parking space outside the neurologist’s office, my uncle asked me again, “Now, why are you taking me here? I don’t know why everyone seems to think there’s something wrong with me.”
I nervously answered, “Well, I don’t know. We just thought you needed a visit with a doctor to talk about some things.” Distracted by my parking efforts, my uncle seemed OK with my vague answer.
Taking a loved one to visit a doctor about their mental health is just plain uncomfortable. How do you explain your concerns to their doctor without embarrassing your loved one? How do you let them maintain some respect? What do you do if your loved one strongly denies there’s a problem? How do you get them to go to their doctor in the first place?
How common is dementia?
According to the World Health Organization, 47.5 million people worldwide have dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia and may contribute to 60 to 70 percent of cases. In the United States, the Alzheimer’s Association reports that an estimated 5.5 million people are living with Alzheimer’s disease. Because of the increasing number of people over the age of 65 in the United States, the number is expected to soar.
Even in the face of these statistics, it can be hard to admit that dementia is affecting us or a loved one. Lost keys, forgotten names, and confusion can seem more like a hassle than a problem. Many dementias are progressive. Symptoms start out slowly and gradually get worse, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Signs of dementia may be more obvious to family members or friends.
How do you help a loved one with dementia?
That brings us back to how we get a loved one to see a specialist regarding their possible dementia. Many caregivers struggle with what to tell their loved one about the doctor’s visit. Experts say it’s all about how you prepare them that can make the difference.
“I tell family members to treat it like another preventive medicine visit, like a colonoscopy or bone density testing,” said Diana Kerwin, MD, chief of geriatrics at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas and the director of Texas Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders. “Families can tell their loved one that they are going for a brain check-up.”
What you should do before the doctor’s visit
- Put together a list of all medications, including over-the-counter medicines and supplements. List their amount and frequency. Better yet, put them all in a bag, and bring them to the appointment.
- Make sure you have a clear understanding of your loved one’s medical and family history.
- Think through what you’ve observed about their memory. When did they begin having trouble with their memory? How has it impaired their life? Write down some examples of the changes you’ve seen.
- Bring a list of questions.
- Bring a notepad to take notes.
What you should do during the doctor’s visit
Once you’re there, you or their doctor can set the tone for showing respect to your loved one.
“I let them know that we are here to see if I can help them keep their memory for the next 10 to 20 years,” said Dr. Kerwin. “Then, I always ask the patient if I have their permission to talk with their loved one about what they have observed.”
Being the bearer of bad news can be a difficult role for the caregiver. But you can look to your doctor for help here. Kerwin says she’s in a unique position to help families deal with difficult conversations.
“I can be the bad guy that says that it might be time to stop driving or they might need to move to a different living situation,” says Kerwin. “Throughout any discussion, I work to keep the patient as involved as possible to give them some control.”
How to provide the best care outside the doctor’s office
While some patients leave with a prescription, it’s common for doctors to send them home with instructions for changing their diet and increasing their exercise in order to help their memory. Just as you might remind your loved one to take their medications regularly, it’s equally important that you help them stick to this new lifestyle, says Kerwin.
Unfortunately, doctors’ visits are only a small part of the strain many caregivers experience. It’s important not to lose sight of this. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, research suggests that caregivers show higher levels of depression, suffer from high levels of stress, have an increased risk of heart disease, and have lower levels of self-care. For these reasons, it’s very important for caregivers to remember to care for themselves as well. Don’t forget that in order to be there for them, your physical, mental, and emotional health should come first.
“I encourage [caregivers] to tell their doctor that they are caring for a loved one, and I ask them to follow the same exercise routine I prescribe for the patient,” advises Kerwin. “I also recommend that they spend at least four hours twice a week away from their loved one.”
As for me, I did eventually find a parking place, and my uncle reluctantly saw the neurologist. We now see the specialist for a brain check-up several times a year. And although it’s always interesting, we always leave feeling respected and heard. It’s the beginning of a long journey. But after that first visit, I feel much more prepared to be a good caregiver for myself and for my uncle.
Laura Johnson is a writer who enjoys making healthcare information engaging and easy to understand. From NICU innovations and patient profiles to groundbreaking research and frontline community services, Laura has written about a variety of healthcare topics. Laura lives in Dallas, Texas, with her teenage son, old dog, and three surviving fish.