Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Elder Care: Little Clues to a Change in Condition

Suppose your elderly parent has been trundling along at the same level of cognitive functioning or physical health for some months. As a lay person, how can you assess on your own the changes in their condition? Do you have to have medical knowledge in order to know that something's different? Actually, in many cases, you can determine this yourself if you're willing to keep your eyes open for little clues.

Take, for example, a dementia sufferer. In my hypothetical example, my dementia sufferer (I'll call her DS) has noticeable short-term memory loss. Still, DS knows the days of the week. She gets herself to all meals on her own. She's well-groomed and enjoys being tastefully dressed. She likes going to her favorite shops to snoop around, or for a walk at the beach, knows where she is and where she wants to go. She remembers significant dates, too, and the celebrations that go with them. She can hold a conversation, although it's a repetitive one, with the same question being raised or statement being made every few minutes. Nevertheless, people who talk with DS casually would be surprised to learn that she's already well into the decline of dementia.

Over a 6-month period, DS's dementia progresses with some sharp drops in cognitive functioning. What are the clues?
Clue number 1: As per family tradition, DS phones her children on Thanksgiving Day. Four weeks later, she does not call her children on Christmas morning.
Clue number 2: DS wears the same T-shirt for a week. Her hair is sometimes disheveled at meals.
Clue number 3: A beloved daughter's birthday draws near and DS cannot remember that daughter's birthdate.
Clue number 4: Reading material is scattered around her apartment, with every magazine turned open to an article.

Any one of these clues might not be considered big enough or definitive enough to indicate a significant shift in DS's dementia. But them together and it's obvious that DS has experienced a steep decline since Thanksgiving. She's not grooming herself well, crucial dates which she's known most of her life have vanished from memory, she's unable to remember a sentence long enough to actually read and finish a magazine article.

Of course, this is just an example. Still, you might try to collect bits of information pertinent to your own parent's condition and then track it. Start with a baseline, which is simple to do. Just jot down a few observations on the essential aspects of your own parent's present condition. Start to keep your eyes open for little clues, such as I made up above. Teach yourself to value the small, indirect bits of information that form your parent's life and don't wait for just the big changes. Keep a record of your observations (and don't self-edit!!). Every 3 or 6 months, read back over what you've noted down. Doing this will help you put together a broad pattern of health or decline. You'll be amazed at what you can learn from it.

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