By Janet Kurland, LCSW-C
You have just gone upstairs to do something, but when you get there, you can’t remember what it was you were going to do. So you come back downstairs. As you get to the bottom of the steps, you remember what you meant to do. Relieved, you go back up, and do what you intended in the first place. But, “Oh, my,” you think, “Does that forgetting mean that I could be developing Alzheimer’s?”
How many of us have said, “I’m afraid I’m losing it” when experiencing memory lapses like this? Almost all of us have occasional memory problems as we age. Many things can interfere with memory, including stress, or feeling preoccupied, distracted or overwhelmed. Chances are, there’s no cause for alarm.
Nevertheless, in some cases, something may be going on that needs attention. In fact, one in 10 people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease today is younger than age 65. Because Alzheimer’s is generally associated with older adults, many people are not aware that dementia can occur at younger ages (40s and 50s). To complicate matters, because Alzheimer’s is unexpected in mid-life, it often goes undiagnosed for a longer time than in the later years.
Let’s define what we’re talking about. “Dementia” describes a group of symptoms, such as confusion, disorientation, memory loss for recent events, and a decline in intellectual functioning. Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia, but dementia is not an inevitable part of normal aging.
So, how can you tell the difference between Alzheimer’s and “normal” forgetting?
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are much more severe than simple memory lapses. A person with Alzheimer’s symptoms forgets an entire experience and rarely remembers later, while someone with normal age-related memory changes forgets part of an experience and often remembers later. Someone with Alzheimer’s is gradually unable to follow written or spoken directions, to use notes as reminders, or to care for him/herself, whereas a person with normal memory changes is usually able to do all of these things.
What should you do if you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of memory loss that concern you?
- Although our tendency may be to ignore or minimize the changes we are seeing, it’s important to acknowledge and address them.
- If the onset of confusion or memory loss is sudden, it may be due to a particular medical situation that could require immediate care. You might need to secure a rapid examination through 911, an immediate office appointment with a doctor, or an emergency room visit.
- However, if the change seems to be of a more gradual nature, the most important thing you can do is to consult a physician. After an initial examination, the physician may go on to recommend a more comprehensive work-up with a group specializing in help with memory problems. These evaluations are usually done by a multidisciplinary team that can then either continue working with the patient and the family, or that can make the full report available to the primary care physician. Much of the cost of the diagnostic evaluation is covered by insurance. It’s a good idea to bring along a family member or friend for the doctor’s appointment, someone who can ask questions and take notes.
Being told that one has Alzheimer’s disease at any age can be painful, frightening, and often devastating, both to the individual affected and to family members. The impact is especially heavy with younger onset Alzheimer’s, coming during the working years when one’s productivity — so essential to the family’s functioning and well-being — becomes compromised. Some people feel almost paralyzed, while others have a torrent of questions. In his book, “Jan’s Story: Love Lost to the Long Goodbye of Alzheimer’s,” CBS News reporter Barry Petersen chronicles the pain of learning that his 55-year-old wife had Alzheimer’s and the impact on their lives. He describes “the effects of living on a never-ending emotional roller-coaster,” and his grief as he had to confront “what Alzheimer’s had taken from her mind and from me.”
If you or someone close to you has received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, this is a time to gather information and resources, seek support, and plan for the future. A diagnosis does not mean that the person is unable to make decisions. Early in the course of the disease, the person may be capable of participating in legal and financial planning to protect the future management of his/her life and assets. It is critical to obtain knowledgeable professional and legal advice as early as possible.
As Alzheimer’s progresses, families will need to be aware of issues related to their loved one’s health, quality of life, and safety, and to respond to the changes in his or her behavior and abilities. If you are a family member and/or a caregiver for someone with younger onset Alzheimer’s, two important things you can do to help navigate that “emotional roller coaster” are to educate yourself about the disease, and learn to accept help from others.
- “Love Lost to the Long Goodbye of Alzheimer’s: An Evening with Barry Petersen” -October 6, 2010, 6:30 – 8:15 p.m., Edward A. Myerberg Center, 3101 Fallstaff Road, Baltimore, MD 21209, sponsored by Alzheimer’s Association Greater Maryland Chapter, Jewish Community Services, and the University of Maryland Geriatrics and Gerontology Education and Research Program. Janet Kurland, LCSW-C, Mary Faith Ferretto, LCSW-C, and Marilyn Blum are panelists following Barry Petersen’s talk. For more information, click here or call 410-561-9099, or www.alz.or/maryland.
- Alzheimer’s Association support groups for family members: 410-561-9099
- Jewish Community Services – 410-466-9200, www.jcsbaltimore.org
By Janet Kurland, LCSW-C, Senior Care Specialist, Jewish Community Services, Baltimore, MD
To learn more about how JCS can help you solve life’s puzzles, visit www.jcsbaltimore.org or call 410-466-9200. Jewish Community Services is an agency of THE ASSOCIATED: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.