How to accept and manage a potential dementia diagnosis.

Imagine these scenarios:

Your wife took a wrong turn on the way home and ended up in her childhood neighborhood. She said she couldn’t remember which street to take.

The electricity was turned off because your dad lost the bills in his stack of newspapers. He’s always handled the bills on time before now.

You find yourself explaining such incidents away, saying, “She’s confused; he’s just not himself today.”

Seeing a change in your loved one’s memory and mental state can have a profound effect on family and loved ones. It’s also not uncommon to resist believing they could have dementia.

Yet while this denial is understandable, it can be dangerous.

That’s because family members’ denial about changes in a loved one’s memory and mental state can delay diagnosis and impede treatment.

The Alzheimer’s Association defines dementia as “a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life.” And according to the Aging, Demographics, and Memory Study sample in the United States, 14 percent of people over age 71 have dementia.

That’s about 3.4 million people, a number that will only rise along with the total older population in the country.

Most cases of dementia — 60 to 80 percent — are caused by Alzheimer’s disease, but many other conditions can cause dementia, and some are reversible.

If you have a loved one who’s experiencing troubling changes in memory, mood, or behavior, consider these early symptoms of dementia. They include:
  • an inability to cope with change
  • short-term memory loss
  • difficulty finding the right words
  • repetition of stories or questions
  • poor sense of direction in familiar places
  • problems following a story
  • mood changes like depression, anger, or frustration
  • a lack of interest in usual activities
  • confusion about things that should be familiar
  • difficulty with common tasks

When it comes to obtaining a diagnosis, the earlier the better. The Alzheimer’s Association cites these reasons to not delay diagnosis:

  • there’s more potential benefit from treatments if started early
  • the person could have a chance to participate in research
  • early diagnosis gives families an opportunity to plan for the future before dementia progresses

Even irreversible dementia can be better managed with an early diagnosis.

In a 2013 article, PhD student Gary Mitchell wrote: “Timely diagnosis is potentially a gateway to living well with dementia. Absence of a clear and direct diagnosis means that personal care preferences, pharmacological interventions, and appropriate support mechanisms may be more difficult to put in place.”

In fact, there are a number of logistical decisions that are better made in the early stages of dementia. These include:

  • choosing medical and caregiver teams
  • planning management of coexisting medical issues
  • preventing risky activities like driving and wandering
  • reviewing and updating legal documents
  • recording the person’s future wishes for long-term care
  • establishing a legal proxy
  • designating someone to handle finances

According to Mitchell, earlier diagnoses can also have social benefits and improve the quality of life for both the person with dementia and their caregivers.

Once a person is diagnosed, they can join support groups and choose right away to spend more time with family and friends, or engage in hobbies. In fact, early support and education can actually reduce admittance to long-term care facilities.

In their book “The 36-Hour Day,” Nancy Mace and Peter Rabins write that it’s normal for caregivers to not want to accept a diagnosis. They may even seek second and third opinions, and refuse to believe dementia is the cause of their family member’s symptoms.

But Macy and Rabins advise caregivers, “Ask yourself if you are going from doctor to doctor hoping for better news. If your reaction is making things more difficult or even risky for the person who has dementia, you need to rethink what you are doing.”

If you think a loved one might have dementia, the following tips and resources can help with not only obtaining a diagnosis, but accepting it:

  • Consult a doctor. If your loved one shows signs of dementia, consult your healthcare provider.
  • Prepare for the appointment. For tips on preparing for your loved one’s doctor’s appointment, check out this resource.
  • Accepting the diagnosis. If your loved one refuses to accept their diagnosis, here are some tips to help them.
  • Make long-term plans. The sooner the better. Together, you can make decisions about finances, legal documents, healthcare, housing, and end-of-life care before your loved one’s condition has progressed too far.
  • Reach out. Call the Alzheimer’s Association’s 24/7 Helpline at 800-272-3900 for guidance on what next steps to take.
  • Do your research. Mace and Rabins suggest caregivers follow the latest research and discuss it with members of the care team.

Anna Lee Beyer is a former librarian who writes about mental health and wellness. Visit her on Facebook and Twitter.