You’re visiting your parent or grandparent in their home or skilled nursing facility. It’s a lovely visit. Suddenly, Dad says, “You know, there’s this article I want you to read. It was in the…the…” Try as he might, Dad can’t remember the name of the magazine. Turns out it was the news magazine he’s been reading every week for the past 40 years, at least. And you wonder. Am I seeing early dementia symptoms, or is this normal?
A very good question.
9 Early Dementia Symptoms
Every single one of us is occasionally prone to forgetfulness. We all have those moments when the word we want is on the tip of our tongue but we can’t access it; when we forgot where we put our glasses; when we can’t remember the name of the friend we met the other day. Those isolated incidents obviously don’t indicate dementia.
When it comes to older adults, though, it can be tricky. There is some cognitive decline that comes with age, and it’s perfectly normal. In order to cross the line to dementia, a person needs to present with at least 2 of the common symptoms – and they have to be severe enough to cause a significant negative impact on that person’s everyday functioning.
So let’s take a look at some of those early dementia symptoms.
1. Word Retrieval
Remember that “the word is on the tip of my tongue” feeling we mentioned earlier? If it’s happening once in a while, it’s probably okay. But if your loved one is doing that often enough that you’re noticing it, that’s an alarm bell.
This can also manifest itself as “thought” retrieval. If Mom is stopping in the middle of her sentences and saying, “What was I about to say?” or “I lost my train of thought” and it’s occurring frequently, you need to be on the alert.
One of the keys to all of the early dementia symptoms is the issue of frequency. Again, we all do that “now where was that pen I was just holding” routine. But we don’t do it so often that it becomes a real nuisance. When it does, that’s a problem. Ditto for mixing up appointments and scheduled activities like a regular weekly lunch date with a friend.
You might be wondering what to do if your loved one lives in a skilled nursing facility and you don’t see them everyday to know exactly what’s going on. In that case, let the staff know what you suspect and ask them to monitor your loved one as much as possible.
3. Forgetting significant information
Is your loved one forgetting information that’s important to them? Have they missed a birthday or anniversary that they always, but always, remembered? Are they forgetting names of people they know well?
This can be really disconcerting, but especially so if your loved one begins to confuse living friends and relatives with those who have already passed away. If that happens, get your relative to see their primary care physician immediately.
Again, we all tend to repeat stories to the same people. But we don’t do it in the same conversation. Nor is repetitiveness as an early dementia symptom limited to stories or questions; it can be in action, too. Things like locking the door a few times, walking the dog twice in the same morning, and cooking the same meal twice are all warning flags.
This is a type of confusion, but it has to do with space and directions. If your loved one has excessive difficulty following instructions, making a new recipe, using a device they’ve always known how to use or gets confused going places he or she could drive to blindfolded, look around for other symptoms of dementia, too.
6. Short-term memory issues
Another early dementia symptom is when events that took place long ago are more easily remembered than recent ones. For example, when Dad can remember the Vietnam War but is having difficulty remembering which movie he saw last night, or if Mom remembers events and people from high school but not the friends she went on vacation with last year.
7. Changes in Mood
Yes, of course, we all have mood changes. Usually, though, those mood swings are within character and within context. If we’re generally upbeat and our mood becomes down or depressed, it’s because something happened. If we’re shy and we begin to act outgoing, it’s because the situation warrants it.
That’s not what we’re talking about here.
Mood changes in the context of dementia are sudden, swift switches that don’t really make sense. Like if Grandma is subdued and then suddenly she starts laughing out loud. Or if Grandpa is calm and content and he suddenly lashes out. When you see that happening, go on the alert.
Another early dementia symptom is apathy or listlessness. This could mean a loss of interest in hobbies, social withdrawal, lack of interest in loved ones and friends and loss of appetite.
Apathy is a great example of how just one symptom doesn’t indicate dementia. Because if you’d say that the above sounds like ordinary depression, you’d be right. But if your loved one is noticeably apathetic and presents with another symptom, it’s time to call their doctor.
9. The 2M 2T rule of early dementia symptoms
Last on the list isn’t so much a symptom as a rule of thumb. Remember 2M 2T:
These four are something your loved one has to deal with every single day. Taking their meds, dealing with money (bills, shopping), driving (or riding the bus) and using everyday devices like phones, remote controls and computers all involve almost every single one of the symptoms we’ve talked about. If your loved one has consistent trouble with even one of these activities of daily living (ADLs) – and the difficulty isn’t related to a physical medical issue – you need to take action.
The thought that a loved one might have dementia isn’t one that’s easy to face. But if you know these 9 early symptoms, you can get them the help they need – and they’ll be able to enjoy the highest quality of life possible.