Don’t Ignore the Signs
Like with any disease, Cheryl Moran said, early detection of Alzheimer’s can make a big difference.
That’s why the Atrium at Cardinal Drive in Agawam and Orchard Valley at Wilbraham, both Benchmark mind and memory-care communities, have been hosting a series of memory screenings at area senior centers.
“Over the past 25-plus years, we’ve seen that people and families affected by dementia often delay planning, which makes for a much more challenging situation later,” said Moran, executive director of the Atrium. “By offering this to the community, we want to help ease the burden.”
Alzheimer’s disease and dementia affects nearly 350,000 people in Massachusetts, and the numbers continue to grow.
“Over the past 25-plus years, we’ve seen that people and families affected by dementia often delay planning, which makes for a much more challenging situation later.”
Memory screenings, Moran noted, are appropriate for anyone concerned about memory loss or experiencing symptoms of dementia or who believes they are at risk due to family history. Screenings like the ones being offered at area senior center provide a safe, simple, face-to-face way to check a person’s memory, language, intellectual functions, and other thinking skills using a series of questions and tasks.
Screenings have already taken place at Wilbraham Senior Center and West Springfield Senior Center in April, and the next two are slated for Wednesday, May 17 from 10 a.m. to noon at Agawam Senior Center, 954 Main St.; and Wednesday, May 31 from noon to 2 p.m. at Palmer Senior Center, 1029 Central St. Attendees can register for either event by calling (413) 821-0605 for Agawam or (413) 283-2670 for Palmer.
A screening can indicate whether someone should consult with a medical provider in order to identify what is causing memory loss. If dementia is the cause, early diagnosis can help both individuals and their family members learn about the disease, set realistic expectations, and plan for their future together.
“If they are able to obtain a diagnosis for the cause of their dementia, it can help to better understand what the individual is struggling with and what to expect as the dementia progresses over time,” said Julie Waniewski, executive director of Armbrook Village in Westfield, which has a memory-care neighborhood called Compass. “There are also clinical drug trials that they can partake in to aid in research and hopefully find a cure one day.”
What to Look For
According to the Alzheimer’s Assoc., memory loss that disrupts daily life may be a symptom of Alzheimer’s or other dementia. The organization lists 10 signs in particular to keep an eye on:
1. Forgetting recently learned information. Similar signs include forgetting important dates or events, asking the same questions over and over, and increasingly needing to rely on memory aids (such as reminder notes or electronic devices) or family members for things they used to handle on their own.
“If they are able to obtain a diagnosis for the cause of their dementia, it can help to better understand what the individual is struggling with and what to expect as the dementia progresses over time.”
2. Challenges in planning or solving problems. Some people living with dementia may experience changes in their ability to develop and follow a plan or work with numbers. They may have trouble following a familiar recipe or keeping track of monthly bills. They may have difficulty concentrating and take much longer to do things than they did before.
3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks. People with Alzheimer’s often find it hard to complete daily tasks. Sometimes they may have trouble driving to a familiar location, organizing a grocery list, or remembering the rules of a favorite game.
4. Confusion with time or place. People living with Alzheimer’s can lose track of dates, seasons, and the passage of time. They may have trouble understanding something if it is not happening immediately. Sometimes they may forget where they are or how they got there.
5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships. For some people, having vision problems is a sign of Alzheimer’s. This may lead to difficulty with balance or trouble reading. They may also have problems judging distance and determining color or contrast, causing issues with driving.
6. New problems with words in speaking or writing. People living with Alzheimer’s may have trouble following or joining a conversation. They may stop in the middle of a conversation and have no idea how to continue, or they may repeat themselves. They may also struggle with vocabulary, have trouble naming a familiar object, or use the wrong name.
7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps. A person living with Alzheimer’s disease may put things in unusual places. They may lose things and be unable to go back over their steps to find them again. He or she may accuse others of stealing, especially as the disease progresses.
8. Decreased or poor judgment. Individuals may experience changes in judgment or decision making. For example, they may use poor judgment when dealing with money or pay less attention to grooming or keeping themselves clean.
9. Withdrawal from work or social activities. A person living with Alzheimer’s disease may experience changes in the ability to hold or follow a conversation. As a result, he or she may withdraw from hobbies, social activities, or other engagements. They may have trouble keeping up with a favorite team or activity.
10. Changes in mood and personality. Individuals living with Alzheimer’s may experience mood and personality changes. They can become confused, suspicious, depressed, fearful, or anxious. They may be easily upset at home, with friends, or when out of their comfort zone.
“There are many warning signs of memory issues or early-stage dementia,” Waniewski said. “Sometimes a person is struggling to prepare meals, which leads to improper nutrition, or they are not taking their medications correctly, the house is unkept, appliances may not be working, or their personal hygiene is not what it used to be. They may also ask the same question repeatedly, which is a sign of short-term memory loss. They may lack interest in previously enjoyed activities or group gatherings, which is usually because they are afraid that others will start to notice that they are struggling cognitively.”
Other warning signs may include piles of unopened mail or shutoff notices, indicating that their executive functioning is declining and finances are becoming difficult to handle on their own, Waniewski added. “Also, their car may have new signs of damage, or they may have gotten lost driving, and the yard may be overgrown and not tended to.”
While not every symptom is a sign of dementia, the Alzheimer’s Assoc. stresses the importance of getting screened, as early detection matters.
“If you notice one or more signs in yourself or another person, it can be difficult to know what to do,” the organization notes. “It’s natural to feel uncertain or nervous about discussing these changes with others. Voicing worries about your own health might make them seem more ‘real.’ Or you may fear upsetting someone by sharing observations about changes in his or her abilities or behavior. However, these are significant health concerns that should be evaluated by a doctor, and it’s important to take action to figure out what’s going on.”
Early detection may also open doors to treatments that may provide some relief of symptoms and help maintain independence longer, as well as increase one’s chances of participating in clinical drug trials that help advance research. Waniewski noted that Armbrook Village and its parent company, Senior Living Residences, are affiliated with Boston University’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, which offers clinical trials in which people can participate.