How to talk to your parent about dementia symptoms

Did your parents have the “birds and bees” talk with you when you were growing up?  If so, this conversation was likely difficult, awkward and even embarrassing. Now the tables have turned and it is time to have the “talk” with your parent about their dementia symptoms. What are the best things to say and how do you broach the subject of getting assessed for a possible dementia diagnosis?

Why have the “talk”?

Talking to a parent about these changes may feel overwhelming, and you may want to avoid it. However, talking to them about the first signs of dementia and discussing your concerns may lead to getting an earlier diagnosis. Dealing with the dementia early on also means your parent can have a voice as to what they want in terms of interventions, treatment options and support.

Recognize the early warning signs

One of the first steps is to learn about the symptoms of dementia for yourself. The Alzheimer Society of Canada has developed a list of 10 signs and symptoms:

  1. Memory loss affecting day-to-day abilities– forgetting things often or struggling to retain new information.
  2. Difficulty performing familiar tasks – forgetting how to do something you’ve been doing your whole life, such as preparing a meal or getting dressed.
  3. Problems with language – forgetting words or substituting words that don’t fit the context.
  4. Disorientation in time and space – not knowing what day of the week it is or getting lost in a familiar place.
  5. Impaired judgment – not recognizing a medical problem that needs attention or wearing light clothing on a cold day.
  6. Problems with abstract thinking – not understanding what numbers signify on a calculator, for example, or how they’re used.
  7. Misplacing things – putting things in strange places, like an iron in the freezer or a wristwatch in the sugar bowl.
  8. Changes in mood and behaviour – exhibiting severe mood swings from being easy-going to quick-tempered.
  9. Changes in personality – behaving out of character such as feeling paranoid or threatened.
  10. Loss of initiative – losing interest in friends, family and favourite activities.

 Tips to guide the conversation

1.  Talk about it as early as possible.

The earlier, the better. When you see the signs, it’s important to say something early before more symptoms occur. Have this conversation at your Mom or Dad’s best time of day (for many, this is the morning).

2.  Plan specific ways to start the conversation.

Is there a certain family member or close friend who can positively influence your parent? Consider asking that person to be with you or have the conversation privately.

Communication tips:

  • Ensure that the setting is quiet and without competing noise and distractions.
  • Speak slowly and directly to the person.
  • Give one message at a time.
  • Allow time for your parent to absorb the information and to form questions

3.  Share examples of what persons living with dementia have to say.

Jim Mann and Elizabeth Allen are two Canadians living with dementia who have lent their voices to advocate for the importance and impact of getting an early diagnosis. Both their stories have been in the public eye and featured on various media outlets. Listening to or reading their stories may even help you discover words needed to approach your own parent living with dementia.

(If Mom or Dad are receptive to the idea, consider inviting them to join you in watching a video about Jim or Elizabeth’s personal experiences. This may show your parent they are not alone.)

4. Be aware the talk may not go as planned.

Try these conversation starters:

  • “Dad I was wondering if you’ve noticed the same changes in your memory that I’ve noticed?”
  • “Mom, would you want to know if I noticed any changes in your memory (or mood or behaviour) lately?”

Your parent may say “No” and be unwilling or not open to discussing the changes you have noticed. Your parent may be fearful. Also, someone experiencing the signs of early dementia may not recognize the symptoms for themselves. The part of the brain that would be able to understand that there is a problem is damaged. If your parent can’t understand the presence of dementia, you will not be able to convince your parent of the dementia symptoms that you observe.

Be prepared that your parent may become angry or even defensive with a comeback comment like: “Don’t be so silly, everyone my age is forgetful!”

If this happens, don’t force the conversation or insist you are right. Acknowledge your parent’s feelings and validate their viewpoint. “Yes Mom, I understand and I’m sorry I upset you. Lots of people at your age easily forget things.” Take a break and plan to revisit the conversation later.

(For more tips and suggestions on how to handle a conversation with your parent about dementia, contact your local Alzheimer Society.)

5. Offer support

This talk can be scary for your parent. It can stir up fears about loss of independence and fears about what is going to happen in the future. These fears may result in a reluctance to see their doctor to discuss the changes. Reassure your parent that you are there for them and can accompany them on doctor visits. Continue to show your support throughout the diagnosis and the days and months that follow. Here are some tips with ways that others have shown their support:

  • Try to understand how Mom or Dad with dementia feels.
  • Encourage your parent to keep track of changes in their communication, daily functions and memories. Let your parent know that there are often other causes for changes in memory and that seeing the doctor can allow you to rule out treatable conditions.
  • Do not dismiss your parent’s worries – listen and show them that you are there for them.
  • Appreciate being in the moment. Yes, have a plan for future care but try not to wrestle with what the future may or may not hold.
  • Despite having memory difficulties and problems with thinking, your parent will still retain some of their abilities. Focus on their remaining strengths and abilities instead of the losses.
  • A sense of humour can be useful, if the timing feels right.
  • Encourage your parent’s independence. Try to take a step back and not take over. If Mom or Dad can do something for themselves, allow them to do it.
  • Be flexible and patient. There will be good days and bad days. You may not know how your parent is going to respond on any given day. Go with the flow. On good days, enjoy when things go smoothly and you get things done. On bad days, wait for the next good day to come around.
  • Be realistic and kind to yourself. Supporting a person with dementia can be positive and rewarding, but it can also be challenging. You can only do so much. Caring for a person with dementia can have a big impact on your mental and physical health and your overall well-being. Everyone who cares for a person with dementia will need assistance at some stage e.g. seeking more information, checking out a caregiver support group or hiring in-home help. Looking after yourself is important for both you and your parent.

Have you had a challenging conversation with a parent about dementia symptoms?

Share your tips with us in the comments below.




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