Holidays provide opportunity to check older relatives’ mental acuity, UNTHSC expert says

Every year, families gather for the holidays only to realize that older relatives aren’t quite the same as they were the last time they saw them.

“During the year family members may talk on the phone and never really know there is a problem until they visit for the holidays,” said Dr. James Hall, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at UNT Health Science Center. “That’s when they notice dad has trouble remembering the names of family members or mom doesn’t remember how to cook the Christmas meal.”

Recognizing the difference between forgetfulness and dementia can be difficult. But those with dementia have significantly impaired cognitive functioning that interferes with normal activities.

Other signs to watch for include:

Problems with language. People with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease often have trouble finding the right word for objects. They may describe the telephone as that thing people talk into.

Difficulty performing familiar tasks. They may forget how to follow a recipe or leave pots on the stove. The electricity might be turned off because they didn’t pay the bill.

Change in personality. They may be more out-going than usual or they may withdrawal. Their behavior may be inappropriate or they lose control. They may also be confused, suspicious, fearful or dependent on a family member.

Disorientation to time and place. Visual and spatial changes can occur with dementia, making it difficult to gauge distances. Suddenly scrapes or dents appear on the car.

Poor or decreased judgment. Those with dementia may dress inappropriately, wearing too few or too many clothes. They may stop bathing.

Family members who are concerned about changes in an elderly relative’s behavior should encourage them to get a physical to explore the cause of their behavioral changes, Dr. Hall said.

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