If You Think a Loved One Has Dementia

If you suspect your loved one may have Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, it can be hard to know what to do. It can be a touchy subject to raise, and you need to think carefully about what to say and when to say it.

This article will help you learn to recognize the signs of Alzheimer's disease in your loved one. It also offers advice on what to do if you think someone you love might be affected.

A daughter talking to her sick mother
D. Anschutz / Getty Images

Review the Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer's disease has a few distinct warning signs. Watch out for these changes in behavior and thinking that may indicate your loved one is in the early stages of the disease.

  • Memory loss: This can include a failure to recall recent events or asking the same question over and over. The person may also lose things often and become frustrated while looking for them.
  • Confusion about time or place: The person may forget where they are or what year it is.
  • Difficulty interpreting visual information: Your loved one might not recognize familiar faces and could have trouble judging distances.
  • Trouble with written and verbal communication: Your loved one may frequently have a hard time coming up with the right word or communicating their thoughts.
  • Lack of interest: The person may lose interest in activities they used to enjoy.
  • Trouble with familiar tasks: The person may have a hard time completing familiar tasks like following a recipe or balancing a checkbook. They may get lost while driving to familiar places.
  • Trouble planning or thinking ahead: The person may have a hard time paying bills on time or planning activities.
  • Mood or personality changes: Your loved one may be abnormally irritable or have mood swings that seem out of character.
  • Poor judgment: Your previously savvy loved one may be easily persuaded by salespeople or may be less cautious when driving.

Note especially if the changes you’re seeing are sudden. This may indicate a delirium or other physical problem that could be reversed with treatment. In this situation, it’s critical for a healthcare provider to evaluate your loved one as soon as possible.

If the symptoms have been developing gradually over time, they're more likely to be related to ​dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Recap

Symptoms of dementia like memory problems, poor judgment, and personality changes develop gradually. Symptoms that come on suddenly may have other causes.

Talk With Close Family Members or Friends

Ask others who know your loved one if they’ve noticed any changes. Try to do this confidentially and respectfully to avoid upsetting your loved one.

Some people with early dementia become good at covering up their memory lapses. It can be harder for them to do this around those who know them well, however. It can be helpful to find out if others have noticed the same things you've been noticing. You may find they have the same concerns but weren't sure if they should say anything.

Of course, your goal is not to spread rumors or gossip. Instead, your goal should be to help your loved one by sharing information with others who are close to that person.

Talk to Your Loved One

Some people with early dementia are aware of their memory problems. They may have noticed lapses and might be relieved to talk about it. Others may become angry and defensive, and deny all concerns. What you know about your loved one will help you decide if you should take a direct or gentle approach.

When you do decide to talk to your loved one, be thoughtful. Choose a time of day when you think they might be most willing to listen.

Use "I" statements. For example, "I'm a little worried about you. I'm wondering how you're doing. I thought I noticed you have a harder time lately with your memory. I was wondering if you've noticed the same thing."

This approach can decrease your loved one's defensiveness. It tends to be more effective than a statement like, "You seem to be having trouble with your memory."

You also might want to avoid using the word "Alzheimer's." It's an emotional word, and you don't know for sure if this is what your loved one has. Instead, consider using words like "memory problems."

Recap

Talk to others who are close to your loved one to see if they've noticed similar symptoms. Take care when discussing what you've noticed with your loved one. Use "I" phrases like "I'm a little worried" and avoid using the word "Alzheimer's."

Persuade Your Loved One to See a Healthcare Provider

Your loved one needs to be evaluated by a healthcare provider. It could be that something else is causing problems with cognition. Some of these problems are reversible, such as:

Thyroid problems or medication interactions can also affect memory and judgment. An evaluation will help your loved one get a diagnosis, followed by proper treatment.

You may find that your loved one resists the idea of seeing a healthcare provider. If so, try reminding them that they need their annual check-up.

If you're not able to get your loved one to see their healthcare provider, you could call yourself. Ask the office staff to contact your loved one to schedule a visit. If you have someone in your family who is more persuasive, ask them to step in. It could be that your loved one just needs to hear the idea from someone else.

You can also look into the possibility of a house call. In some communities, there are healthcare providers who will come to your loved one's home.

Summary

A person who is exhibiting warning signs of Alzheimer's needs to be evaluated by a healthcare provider. The first step in getting the person the help they need is to talk to other people who know the person to see if they've also noticed warning signs.

Sit down with your loved one and use "I" statements. For example, you could say "I've noticed you might be having problems with your memory."

Talk to your loved one about seeing a healthcare provider. If they resist, see if someone else in the family might be able to persuade them, or have your loved one's healthcare provider call them to schedule an appointment.

A Word From Verywell

It's normal to feel anxious about having this talk with a loved one. Memory problems and a possible dementia diagnosis can be very sensitive subjects. Provide plenty of reassurance to your loved one. Let the person know that you have their best interests in mind and that you'll be there to provide support no matter the outcome.

Finally, remember there are benefits of early detection of Alzheimer's disease. This can sometimes include better response to medications and other non-drug treatments. 

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3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Alzheimer's Association. What Is dementia?.

  2. Alzheimer's Association. Approaching memory loss concerns.

  3. Harvard Medical School. Alzheimer's disease: a guide to diagnosis, treatment, and caregiving.

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