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How to Spot Early Signs of Dementia in an Aging Parent?

Many people fail to spot the early signs of dementia in their aging parents, focusing on the aging process rather than cognitive deficits.

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While my own parents died relatively young (my mother of breast cancer at 54, my father to leukemia at 76), many of my friends in their 50s and 60s are stuggling to care for parents--whether their own, their spouses', or both. The demanding and time-consuming work of caregiving envelopes their lives, sometimes for decades. 

This article challenged me to think about how easy it is to overlook the signs a parent is failing cogitively. We often think, "Oh, Dad is really showing his age," but too seldom, "Dad seems to be showing signs of a cognitive deficit or dementia." 


“People tend to attribute too much to normal aging and are a little dismissive of cognitive loss,” says Dr. Paul Fishman, a professor of neurology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and a neurologist at UMD’s Medical Center. “Dementia is very common, and in general it is under-diagnosed, rather than over-diagnosed.”

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

In talking with friends whose parents suffer(ed) from dementia, I often heard: "We wish we were told more. We wish the doctors had given us more information." Even in advanced medical communities like Stanford and PAMF, my friends were frustrated by feeling uninformed, ill-prepared. Better communcation by medical personnnel would have helped them feel more in control of caretaking challenges.

Tell us about your work experience:

I am the CEO/President of CSM Consulting (Educational and Design Consulting Firm) and founder of The Parent Education Series (SUHSD), now the largest program of its kind in Silicon Valley.


Join the conversation:

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Congratulations on being today's Featured Contribution!

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Charlene & Kate,
There's a lot of fear around the idea of dementia, from both the afflicted and the family/loved ones' perspectives, based in a whole bunch of unknowns. Part cultural bias, part medical complexities, part reality of caring for someone living with the disease. Just yesterday there was a new article published about a consumer-oriented test for dementia that shows some of the associated diagnostic challenges:
While we can be hopeful, I think it's helpful, Charlene, to take Dr. Paul Fishman's advice - look and listen for simple changes. Even long distance, sometimes you can sense it in someone's conversation. It can be the difference between sometimes misplacing keys, to frequently misplacing everyday things, to forgetting what the "thing" is used for.

Photo of Charlene Margot

All good advice, Susan. I have not personally dealt with a parent or loved one affected by dementia, but it is certainly a challange for friends and colleagues. I like your idea of looking and listening for simple changes first -- driving habits, losing items, etc. When do you think an adult child should seek an expert opinion, if they suspect cognitive deficits?

Photo of Susan Jackewicz

Charlene, It was a couple decades ago when my mom was first diagnosed. Back then, people hid their thoughts, fears, and symptoms regularly. Now, luckily, the tide is shifting with more accurate diagnoses, better knowledge about potentially slowing the disease via lifestyle changes, and with more awareness, a bit less bias and more open discussions. It's still a delicate conversation to have with the person effected, but if you observe something troubling, it would be helpful to have a consultation with a medical professional as soon as possible. It depends on the individuals involved, but can be taken in a positive light - the positive side is knowing some lifestyle changes can have an impact - as well as making sure early on any legal/medical/healthcare proxies can be accomplished while someone is still relatively healthy and of sound mind - better the chance the individual will be taken care of in the way they'd want. Not to give false hopes, but while researchers are looking for a cure, it makes sense to be proactive and try and stay as healthy as possible.

Photo of Kate Rushton

Thank you for highlighting this, Charlene!

We were discussing as a team, how do you know if your loved one has dementia? Most of us have very busy lives and it may be difficult to notice and/or accept these changes if we are at a physical distance from our loved ones or there in person.

I noticed this from the article 'But the number-one red flag a child or caregiver needs to watch out for is change. If someone is acting differently than they used to, that’s good reason for them to see a doctor for an evaluation, Fishman says. That evaluation will include some form of cognitive assessment—either quick or in-depth, depending on the person’s symptoms—and may also entail blood work or other tests to rule out non-Alzheimer’s factors.'

I wonder how many of the tools for diagnosing dementia could be adapted and become available as a pre-screen to caregivers.

Is there any chance you could find an image to go along with it? Images help grab attention and tell a story. You should be able to use the Edit Contribution button on the top of your post and follow the instructions to add images from there. Looking forward to seeing more of your inspiring insights on OpenIDEO.

Photo of Charlene Margot

Kate, may I add an image available for free, such as through Google images?