Snapshots of Dementia: Show Me a Sign
“Watch carefully.” “Keep a list.” “Keep a journal.” That’s the traditional advice given to people who suspect a loved one shows signs of dementia.
Even after Tom’s surprise party and the revival of my concerns, I didn’t keep a record of his struggles. My nagging thoughts came and went. And his previous diagnosis of adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) didn’t help. I remember telling myself and at least one neurologist, “Maybe this is just what aging looks like in someone with ADHD.”
But a day came when I did start keeping a list. This lasted only a month or so because it became almost like the situation when someone says, “I think this milk might be spoiled. Could you check it?” I find myself unable to taste or smell anything but spoiled milk—even if it’s perfectly fresh.
When I was looking for dementia, I found all sorts of problems. And it hurt to think I might find symptoms and signs where there were none.
So I stopped keeping my list and even deleted it. But I do still have notes here and there along with memories, which at this point are more intact than not.
Dementia is a diagnosable condition made up of many small elements. I noticed the following signs in what I now call the “early days,” when I still wondered whether something was wrong:
—Distractibility/lack of focus: My husband seemed to move away from a task and on to another more quickly than in the past. He left more things unfinished and undone. I knew this was true at home, but eventually, I realized it was also affecting his job.
—Hesitancy in speech: Tom’s speech became more and more halting. I realized how much he struggled for words one night when, during a choir rehearsal, he mentioned a previous mission trip to what he (after a long pause) called the “left side of Canada.” As people laughed, I cringed—and added this to my mental list.
—Forgetfulness or inattentiveness: Our dear next-door neighbor messaged me more than once to ask if we knew our garage door was open. No, we didn’t, but yes, Tom had forgotten to close it when he went to work. Two or three times, he left the front door of the house wide open as well. People grew accustomed to reminding him multiple times about nearly everything.
—Exhaustion: He would come home from work so tired he could do nothing but sleep for a couple of hours. He would get up for a short time and then go to bed early. Normal aging, or a sign of a problem? I had no idea.
—Withdrawal from social situations: Tom had always been a life-of-the-party guy who did his best to laugh and help others feel at ease. Suddenly, I often found myself the leader in conversations while he sat quietly. He would still joke with people, but this radical change bothered me. A lot.
These are some, not all, of the changes that helped me move from wondering to urging him to see a neurologist. Even though we eventually discovered he has frontotemporal degeneration (FTD), not Alzheimer’s, this list helped me make that decision.
We all forget things occasionally. We all make mistakes. But when the issues became more than occasional, I could no longer ignore them. Again, I hoped and prayed I was wrong in thinking Tom had a problem.
I was far more right than I knew.
If you have a friend or loved one with dementia, what signs or symptoms did you notice first? What moved you to seek medical treatment? Your story matters.