How Do I Know If My Mom or Dad Has Dementia?

Updated on June 13, 2017
VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne was a caregiver for in-laws with Alzheimer's, and she shares her extensive research in dementia and elder care to help others.

Is It Dementia?

Have you noticed your parent or spouse forgetting things? Perhaps they've gotten lost on the way home from the store, or maybe they've asked the same question several times. What is the difference between normal forgetfulness and dementia? This article explains how to tell.

Short Memory Quiz

Below is a short quiz to help you determine whether the person you are concerned about is showing signs of early dementia. More quizzes for testing dementia can be found in Testing for Alzheimers and Symptoms of Advanced Alzheimers.

Fill out the quiz for the person you are worried about. Respond to each question with a "yes" or "no."

Memory Problems or Normal Aging? Take this quiz to see.

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Normal Aging vs. Signs of Dementia

Normal Aging
Sign of Early Dementia
Daily life activities like driving, using telephone, bill paying and shopping
No problems getting these tasks done as before.
gets confused or can't complete task without reminders or help
Personal care life dressing, grooming, bathing
No problems with continuing these tasks
May start dressing inappropriately or forget to do normal tasks
Sometimes forgets a word or name
Frequently can't remember a word, makes word substitues or misuses words
Complains of memory loss
Frequently complains or notices when they forget a word or name
Doesn't complain about memory loss or notice if they forget
Social Skills
Same as always
May start behaving differently towards other people, get depressed, or drop activites they did before
Memory for recent events
Remembers events and details
Can't remember details of events, or even event itself
Orientation in space and time
Doesn't get lost. Able to remember days, dates and times.
Impaired. Starts forgetting familiar routes. May have trouble knowing days, dates and time.
Learning New Things
Slower, but can learn new tasks or information
May be able to learn but can't retain information. Can't learn how to use a new appliance or T.V. remote.
Cognitive Testing
performs well in all areas
one or more areas show impairment
Adapted from "The Alzheimer's Answer," by Marwan Sabbagh, M.D., 2008. pp. 24-34
Detecting signs and symptoms of dementia early can preserve family memories.
Detecting signs and symptoms of dementia early can preserve family memories. | Source

Why Knowing Signs is Important

For over two years, my husband and I struggled with the increasingly difficult behavior of his parents Only after a traumatic emotional breakdown and the hospitalization of his mother did we finally learn that they both were suffering from dementia caused by Alzheimer's. We wished we had gotten help earlier.

Unfortunately, our story is not uncommon. Most people with dementia are not diagnosed until there is some sort of accident or hospitalization. By recognizing the early signs of dementia, you can often get better treatment.

  • About 30% of dementia is not Alzheimer's and may even be something that can be prevented and cured.
  • Alzheimer's dementia can't be cured, but early detection allows for treatment to perhaps delay the disease and to plan for the future.

My in-laws in Middle Stage Dementia.  Since social skills are often preserved longer than other skills, sometimes people with dementia can seem fine.
My in-laws in Middle Stage Dementia. Since social skills are often preserved longer than other skills, sometimes people with dementia can seem fine. | Source

Dementia vs. Alzheimer's

What is the relationship between Dementia and Alzheimer's? Dementia is the symptom of memory loss, and Alzheimer's is the leading cause of dementia.

Between 60-70% of people diagnosed with dementia after age 65 are ultimately diagnosed as having Alzheimer's. Even though Alzheimer's is not reversible, there are treatments and lifestyle changes which can delay the disease. Recent developments in understanding and treating Alzheimer's suggest that if a person can be diagnosed in the stage of Mild Cognitive Impairment which precedes Alzheimer's and other dementias they can be treated to delay the disease.

When a parent stops taking good care of their bodies that can be a sign of dementia
When a parent stops taking good care of their bodies that can be a sign of dementia | Source

Repairable Causes of Dementia

It is important to realize that Alzheimer's is not the only cause of dementia and some causes of memory impairment are reversible. Especially if the memory loss seems sudden, there is a good chance that something else should be suspected. Here are some of the other causes of dementia:

  • Dementia with Lewy Bodies: second most common kind of dementia and tends to progress quickly. People with this dementia tend to have problems moving and vivid hallucinations.
  • Vascular dementia: small strokes can cause dementia. This type does not necessarily progress and can even improve if treated.
  • Pick's Disease: a rare type of dementia caused by genetic mutations on 17th chromosome, people with this type of dementia are often socially inappropriate with poor judgment.
  • Parkinson's Disease: along with the movement problems of this disease can come dementia.
  • Huntington's disease: a genetic disease associated with mutations on the 4th chromosome which causes early onset dementia in people 40s to 60s.
  • Alcohol and Drug overuse: sustained use of alcohol/ and or drugs use can cause dementia.
  • Depression: mental illness, especially depression can cause dementia. Dementia can also cause depression, so it is important for a doctor to distinguish cause and effect, but one clue is that with a person whose dementia is caused by depression, there will be an improvement in mental ability when depression is treated.
  • Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus: This is a treatable condition which affects some elderly people who show signs of balancing problems and bladder control problems along with memory loss.
  • Metabolic disorders: having low sodium, low blood sugar or thyroid deficiency can cause dementia. All of these are treatable.
  • Brain Tumors: lesions in the brain can cause dementia and are one of the reasons a person needs a medical exam.
  • Infections: another important thing to rule out is dementia caused by illness and infections.
  • Medications: some medications which are prescribed or taken over-the-counter can cause memory problems, especially when they are taken in excess or in particular combinations. Check for this by bringing all medications and supplements with the patient to the doctor's exam.

Dementia in Family

Do you have a grandparent, parent or sibling with dementia?

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Steps to Take

If your loved one shows some of these early signs of memory loss, have them see a medical doctor as soon as possible. Why? Only a doctor can:

  1. Fully screen someone to see if they have mild cognitive impairment or dementia.
  2. Determine what the cause is of the memory impairment.
  3. Give medicines, treatments, and advice on how to deal with your loved one's memory loss.
  4. Suggest medications that might slow down Alzheimer's.
  5. Give you information about help and support that is available in your community.

I speak from experience. Once we were able to get my in-laws treated with proper medical supervision, their lives and ours improved immensely. In another situation, my mother's apparent memory loss turned out to be a hearing problem. With hearing aids, her "dementia" completely disappeared.

Do you have a question about dementia, or would you like to share an experience that could help others? Please share in the comments below.

Questions & Answers

  • Do they become violent?

    If an individual has become violent, they are probably entering a middle stage of dementia. My father-in-law became verbally violent and we believe he also acted violently toward my mother-in-law, who ended up in the hospital twice. It was not easy for us to determine whether what happened was an accident or not. If someone becomes violent, it can be very difficult for the family, but it is even more important to take action, especially if there is anyone who could get hurt.


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    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 2 years ago from United States

      So lad this was helpful! I spent many weeks researching this information before writing my series of articles on Alzheimer's. I wanted to provide all the information I wish we'd been able to find when we needed it.

    • GmaGoldie profile image

      Kelly Kline Burnett 2 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

      Fantastic information. I was wondering about what signs to look for. We participated in the Alzheimer's Walk but sadly there was no pamphlet to explain the details you provided. Voted up! Keep up the great work!

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 2 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      This is an informative hub and brings me much knowledge about this Disease. Thanks for sharing with us.

    • profile image

      Dementia.... 5 years ago

      Great hub and well presented. Thanks for sharing.

    • anthonyjgarcia profile image

      Anthony J. Garcia 5 years ago from Waco, TX

      Hmm, this is something many American's don't think about. Diane Sawyer has currently been doing a mini-series on ABC World News about dealing with those tough questions and issues you have to deal with when parents are aging. I myself did some research on Alzheimer's in 6th grade when President Reagen passed away. Thanks for sharing these facts, I'll pass this along to my parents!

    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 5 years ago from United States

      DiCalderon, I have so much sympathy for you and your family. Information on Alzheimer's and dementia does help to cope with the disease.

    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 5 years ago from United States

      EBuchanan, I think that having a relative with Alzheimer's makes you understand the complex feelings this disease causes in a family. So sorry you are having to experience this in your aunt, who is probably rather young for this disease.

    • profile image

      DiCalderon 5 years ago

      Currently my family is going through this with my grandmother. Although it is very difficult, we try to just go along with what she says and answer her questions without getting mad or frustrated with her. Taking the quiz and reading through the chart of signs and symptoms helped me further understand what Dementia really is.

    • EBuchanan profile image

      EBuchanan 5 years ago

      My Aunt has Alzheimer's and sometimes she gets mixed up with which sister is which and who has graduated and so forth. We all know there isn't anything we can do about it other than just play along and with the story. I like the scientific and personal side to your article.

    • sarahbyers profile image

      sarahbyers 5 years ago from waco tx

      It is so interesting to see all the different types of dementia that actually exist. My dad's dad has dementia and my mother's sister has Alzheimers disease. Both can affect a family in large ways and I do agree that the most important thing to do is to get a medical experts help.

    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 5 years ago from United States

      Thanks Mommiegee--I thought I knew a lot about dementia but I've learned so much more since I've been researching. I was not able to find good online resources when I was in the middle of trying to figure out what was going on with my relatives.

    • Mommiegee profile image

      Mommiegee 5 years ago from Alabama

      This is a very helpful hub. Thank you so much for going into detail about the signs and symptoms. I even enjoyed the quiz. Thanks again.

    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 5 years ago from United States

      Thanks toknowinfo!

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 5 years ago

      Very well done hub. It is a good mixture of informative facts with your own personal experience, which is helpful to so many who read this. I know you have endured a lot as a caregiver and I hope writing this helped you deal with what you had to go through too. Rated up and useful and shared on twitter.

    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 5 years ago from United States

      Thanks so much Seeker for adding your story. I think that knowing other people are going through this process is so helpful! It makes us realize that we are not alone.

    • Seeker7 profile image

      Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

      What a fantastic hub and the thing I love the most about this, is that it's written by a family member who was involved with Alzheimer's. I think for many people this makes it much easier to relate to you and your hub rather than say one written by a doctor or nurse as the articles can seem distant and impersonal to people trying to find out more. If there is one thing I learned while looking after elderly people and their families, is that the personal touch means so much more to them than anything else.

      I also look after my Dad who has heart disease and Parkinson's Disease. His memory is so bad at the moment and I'm always aware that with Parkinson's there is a risk of a couple of forms of dementia starting. Thankfully at the moment it is just memory and not anything more sinister.

      An excellent hub with great information but also a wonderful personal touch that reaches out to people.