With Alzheimer's so much in the news, it's natural to ask yourself sometimes whether you could be on the brink of the disease or some other dementia. This worry is compounded in people who have early onset Alzheimer's in their families. After all, who hasn't forgotten keys, messed up a checkbook or even neglected to pay a bill?
Don't panic. Stress can be a huge culprit when it comes to memory problems, as can medications, infections and sleep deprivation. So it's important to take a realistic look at your situation.
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Check for changes in behavior
If you always mess up when you balance your checkbook, you probably shouldn't be too concerned if you do it again. However, if you are an accountant and the numbers no longer make sense, then it's time to consider a checkup.
The same thing goes for activities like cooking. If you are a casual cook but your meals aren't as tasty as usual, it's probably just because you are rushing and not paying attention. Maybe you're tired or distracted by your care receiver's health. But if cooking is your major form of relaxation, and you find creative joy in making meals, yet are habitually messing them up, you may want to question why.
Getting lost driving home from a familiar place? Not good. But if you just flake out and make a wrong turn because you are preoccupied, it's probably okay. However, if you are driving home from a familiar store and can't remember how to get from point A to point B, it's probably time to see a doctor.
If you do have symptoms that bother you, see a doctor, for your care receiver's sake as well as your own. If your mother has Alzheimer's, you can't properly care for her if you can't keep her medications straight.
But make sure your doctor is aware of your stress level as a caregiver, since stress could behind your feeling that you may be "losing it." Other possible causes:
--New medications. These can cause havoc in your mind as well as your body.
--Medication interactions. Even if you have taken the same medications for years, your body changes over time. Ask your doctor to check your medications for possible interactions, and that includes over-the-counter medications, as well as vitamins and herbs.
--Emotional and physical stress. The stress could be from caregiving or something else that is bothering you.
--Infections. You may not be aware that you have developed a new infection that is distracting you. For instance, urinary tract infections are infamous for going "underground," and then causing confusion, anxiety and even dementia-like symptoms.
--Sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation can cause a host of problems, and many caregivers – especially those who have elders with Alzheimer's – find that they get no more than an hour or two of uninterrupted sleep at a time. Nights are fitful, and the deep sleep needed for dreaming and for memory function isn't happening. If you go too long with this cycle, you could quite possibly have some scary symptoms. If this is the case, it's likely time to get some help with your caregiving.
After the doctor's visit
Maybe your doctor will discover a treatable situation and you can stop worrying. However, if you do have early signs of dementia, the sooner it's discovered the better, so you can take steps to live the best quality of life possible. That, of course, includes getting more help for your care receiver.
You shouldn't neglect your own care either. Getting a dementia diagnosis is devastating, so ask your doctor for the name of a therapist who can help you cope, and also for advice on how to break the news to your family. Also, look into getting some immediate help to do cleaning, cooking, finances and any other task that you find confusing or difficult. Finally, take time to investigate facilities that might handle your care as your disease progresses.
Author, columnist and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack wrote "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories" and is the moderator of the AgingCare.com community. Read her full biography.