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Coping With Dementia

Warning Signs

    It was about six years ago, while longtime Alameda resident Robert “Bob” McPeak was enjoying his retirement, when his family began to notice some changes in his behavior.
    “Slowly, over time, we noticed that he was growing more forgetful and where he once was really self-motivated to get things done—projects around the house, for example—it was taking some prodding and nagging on our part to get him to accomplish things,” explains Paula Whitton, his daughter.
    As time progressed and the situation worsened, Whitton and her family had McPeak, 78, undergo a comprehensive series of medical tests and psychological assessments. First, his doctors labeled his condition mild cognitive impairment. Eventually, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, a brain disorder first described by German physician Alois Alzheimer in 1906 and the most common form of dementia.
    Dementia is the broad term for a general decline in a person’s mental abilities that is severe enough to interfere with daily living and activities. It affects memory, problem solving, learning and other mental functions. A variety of conditions fall within the category of dementia, including injuries to the brain from tumors, head injury or stroke; diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s; or long-term alcohol dependence. Often, depression is mistaken for dementia, especially in older patients.
    Roberta Tracy, program director of the Oakland-based Bay Area Community Services Adult Day Care, has been a social worker in senior services for more than 20 years. Bay Area Community Services operates Adult Day Health Care programs in Berkeley, Hayward and Oakland, which provide compassionate care for seniors with dementia.
Tracy lists many warning signs, including:
    • Recent memory loss;
    • Difficulty performing daily tasks;
    • Problems with language—confusing everyday words or using wrong words (Tracy had one patient who kept “saying ‘air’ when she really meant ‘water’.”);
    • Not knowing the time, date or where they are;
    • Getting lost easily;
    • Poor judgment, such as forgetting to put on a coat when it’s cold outside;
    • Trouble with abstract thinking, such as being unable to balance a checkbook;
    • Confusion involving everyday items, such as putting the teapot in the freezer;
    • Extreme mood swings and personality changes with no explanation.
    “Sometimes these signs are coupled with depression because the patient is aware of what’s happening to them,” Tracy explains. Often the patient’s spouse works hard to compensate for the symptoms, too.
    Whitton corroborates Tracy’s observations by citing examples with her father.
    “He would get frustrated easily and react by being annoyed and cranky, which is really unlike him. He’s always been very happy-go-lucky,” she says.
    Once family members realize that there might be something wrong, Tracy says it’s important to get early diagnosis to get the right treatment.
    “Sometimes these symptoms can be caused by over-medication or mixing the wrong medications, and it’s critical to rule these situations out,” says Tracy.
    Through early detection, McPeak’s doctors carefully prescribed medication to combat the advancing symptoms of his disease. And, although there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, paying attention to the warning signs—and then acting on them—has given the McPeak family a little more enjoyable time together.

Closer to Home

Alzheimer’s Services of the East Bay, www.aseb.org/ Berkeley: (510) 644-8292; Hayward: (510) 888-1411; Oakland: (510) 268-1410

California Caregiver Resource Centers, www.californiacrc.org

General Resources

When Your Loved One Has Dementia: A Simple Guide for Caregivers, by Joy A. Glenner, Jean M. Stehman, Judtih Davagnino, Margaret Davagnino, Margaret J. Galanter and Martha L. Green; 2005.

What If It’s Not Alzheimer’s?: A Caregiver’s Guide to Dementia, by John Q. Trojanowski, M.D., Lisa Radin and Gary Radin; 2008.

Health Agencies and Web Sites
Alzheimer’s Association, www.alz.org, (800) 272-3900

Family Caregiver Alliance, www.caregiver.org, (415) 434-3388

Dementia.com, www.dementia.com


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