You’ve noticed some recent changes in your loved one. Up until recently, your dad was working at a job he enjoyed and intended to do until he couldn’t anymore. But then he had trouble keeping himself organized and he made the decision to move on. Now, your once-driven father seems to be doing not much of anything, withdrawing from all but his closest friends and family.
You suspect something is wrong, and know that Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia is a strong possibility. Should you act? If you do, what should you do next? Talk to dad? Talk to his doctor? And is there any point to pursing a diagnosis? You know that even medical experts can’t be completely sure someone has Alzheimer’s. Will the diagnosis only bring unnecessary pain and conflict to someone who only has a few years of life left?
Yes, it is true that diagnosing Alzheimer’s isn’t an exact science. No doctor knows without a doubt that a person has the disease: it can only be determined after death when the person’s brain can be examined for the plaque and tangles that characterize this illness. Furthermore, recent research has found that only about a third of Alzheimer’s diagnoses are completely correct. In another third of cases the evidence is murky and the last third are completely misdiagnosed!
But to put aside the issue of imperfect medical knowledge, even assuming one could know with certainty that they had Alzheimer’s, would they want to? Those who are labeled with the disease do often experience friends and family drifting away as they become uncomfortable. Illness is never an easy thing to witness, and for some people it’s just too much.
And beyond the isolation issue, accepting an Alzheimer’s diagnosis means accepting that one’s cognitive abilities, and quality of life, will be declining. Many prefer to put off facing this reality for as long as possible.
On the other hand, knowledge does bring power. For example, it may be useful to know that a loved one’s problems are NOT caused by Alzheimer’s or dementia, so that appropriate treatment can be pursued. It may be possible that your loved one’s condition can be easily remedied. The symptoms of a number of medical problems can be confused with Alzheimer’s: difficulty hearing, medication interactions, thyroid diseases, depression, heart problems, urinary tract infections, and diabetes. These concerns may be more treatable.
Finally, having an Alzheimer’s diagnosis can enable the patient and their family to plan more effectively for the future. It can prompt everyone to have a discussion about how the person wants to be cared for as they decline, while they are still able to have a meaningful conversation. It is also easier to make the appropriate legal, financial, and medical arrangements in the earlier stages of the disease. And finally, having a concrete reason for the behavior can be comforting to seniors and their loved ones. Otherwise, it’s all to easy for them to think that they’re “going crazy” or otherwise defective in some way.
There is a reasonable fear around seeking confirmation of suspicions of Alzheimer’s disease, but the disease itself is not going to go away. Many may find, as is often the case with fear, that the best way to escape it is to face it head on.