Does Mom Have a Memory Problem?

What to do about that nagging feeling.

It’s not just you. Many of us came back from the holidays with lingering concerns that something was off about mom or dad. 

Maybe it was the way mom kept asking the same questions about your job. Or the way dad got a little confused driving home from the supermarket. 

But your brother thinks you’re overreacting. Besides, if something was wrong, mom would tell us, right? 

For many families, that’s where the discussion ends — and that’s a mistake.

What Needs to Happen

“Developing a poor short-term memory or frequent confusion is not normal aging,” says geriatrician Leslie Kernisan, MD. “It’s the sign of a problem with brain function. It’s a sign of what we call cognitive impairment.”

What needs to happen is a medical evaluation to find out what is causing or contributing to the problem, says Kernisan. 

But that won’t happen unless mom or dad agrees to see a doctor. And many older parents don’t.

Reasons vary: Your parent might have a lifelong aversion to doctors. They may be completely unaware there’s a problem (one of the hallmarks of cognitive impairment). “Or your parent might feel defensive,” says Kernisan:

“…At some point people with memory loss do feel like they are slipping. And that’s very scary for people…. 

[So when] well-meaning family members bring up their concerns, it’s common for the older person to deny that there’s a problem, refuse to talk about it, refuse to disclose whether they’ve talked to their doctor about it, or refuse to go to the doctor for this problem.”

What You Can Do

Talk with your parent about your concerns. But do some homework first. Because what you say and how you say it matters.

Here are a few pro strategies and tips from Kernisan’s excellent (and free!) video podcast, Talk to Your Aging Parent About Memory Loss Concerns:

Observe before you talk. Make notes about your concerns. You’re looking for signs of cognitive problems: changes in memory, judgement, behavior, and personality; and challenges with self-care and activities of daily living, such as driving, or managing finances or meds. 

This checklist can help. But be subtle. Don’t follow dad around with a clipboard. 

Your job is to understand your parent’s perspective — not to get them to understand yours.

Kernisan’s advice: share an observation and ask your parent to “tell you more.” What do they remember about it? Do they even think there is a problem? If so, how do they feel about it? And how do they feel about letting their doctor know?

Don’t debate the facts or argue. This isn’t an interrogation where you confront your parent with evidence. 

Instead, “make an effort to validate their concerns and emotions,” says Kernisan. “Even if they say things that aren’t true, that you disagree with, or that seem crazy.”

More from Kernisan:

Thanks for caring,

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