Does Dad Have Dementia?

By Melissa Burton, LMSW

“I am worried dad’s slipping. I can’t pinpoint an exact change, but he seems off his game. His driving seems more erratic. He is withdrawing from activities and seems hyper-focused on small issues. Is this a sign of dementia?”  -Former LifeLinks Client

How to tell

In the early stages of cognitive decline symptoms can be elusive and hard to diagnosis. Often times you just have a gut feeling that something isn’t quite right. A bad day can be a huge red flag, but the very next day everything can appear normal again. You may even feel guilty that you thought something was wrong. What a blessing that you were wrong you tell yourself. But this cycle starts to repeat itself over time, and there comes a point when you want answers and a way to know for sure what you and your loved one are dealing with. The problem with this stage of dementia is it can be hard to diagnose. This phase can also vary in length with a tendency to last a long time. Getting a clear diagnosis with staging may not be possible, but there are signs to look for that can help you piece the puzzle together.

10 Warning Signs of Dementia

According to the Alzheimer’s Association there are ten warning signs to assess.

  1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life
  2. Challenges in planning or solving problems
  3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure
  4. Confusion with time or place
  5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
  6. New problems with words in speaking or writing
  7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
  8. Decreased or poor judgement
  9. Withdrawal from work or social activities
  10. Changes in mood and personality

Normal vs. Abnormal Aging

As we age our brain as well as the rest of our body can slow down. We may not feel as sharp as we once were and learning new tasks and fact become harder. In addition to slowing down memory deficits can also be caused by a medical problem, depression, anxiety or stress. Normal types of aging can include forgetting where you parked. Abnormal would be forgetting what your car looks like.

According to the National Institute on Aging

Normal Aging Alzheimer’s Disease
Making a bad decision once in a while Making poor judgments and decisions a lot of the time
Missing a monthly payment Problems taking care of monthly bills
Forgetting which day it is and remembering it later Losing track of the date or time of year
Sometimes forgetting which word to use Trouble having a conversation
Losing things from time to time Misplacing things often and being unable to find them

What to do next

If you suspect the signs you are seeing with your dad are pointing to dementia you may be asking what you need to do next. Every situation and family is unique so there are no rules that will apply to everyone; however, it might help to ask yourself the following questions:

How do I talk to dad about my concerns? Talking to your dad about your concerns can be tricky. Once the conversation begins it can often carry a stigma. A conversation may happen in stages. Share your concerns, show love and try to stay positive. Chances are you will be having this conversation more than once. And there is a high likelihood that denial and poor self awareness will be present. If this happens don’t try to force the issue. Instead come up with a plan behind the scenes. Talk to the other members of the family. Your mom, siblings and other loved ones can come together to discuss observations and concerns. Again, this will probably be an ongoing conversation since everyone involved has to process the situation both facts and feelings in their own time. If you need assistance with this conversation a care manager or counselor can help.

Is safety an issue? Is your dad’s driving becoming a hazard to him and others? Is he getting lost or forgetting to take medications and neglecting to take care of himself? If you answered yes to these questions it is time for an intervention.

How do you get a diagnosis? Start with his primary care physician. His PCP can do the preliminary screening and diagnosis. The doctor will also rule out any medical problems that may be causing the symptoms aside from dementia. From there he may refer your dad to a neurologist for further testing to confirm the diagnosis. It is likely he will be put on some medications like Exelon, Namenda or Aricept to help with disease progression and symptoms.

Once you get a diagnosis for your dad you may want to consider adding a geriatric psychiatrist to the team. As the disease progresses and mood and symptoms change a psychiatrist can help you navigate the rough spells.

How do you deal with resistance? If your dad is in denial and resisting your efforts to help it may be time to seek outside help. A geriatric care manager is an excellent ally that can offer hands on assistance and a buffer to keep you away from having to be the “bad guy.”

How to handle the situation

Remember to live your life with your dad, don’t forget he is still the man you know and love. It is very easy to start to see the disease more than the man who has the disease. Each day will bring a mix of fear, frustration, confusion and yes, even joy. Take each day one moment at a time.

As you take care of your dad’s needs, don’t forget to take care of your needs as well. How is this impacting you? You don’t have to go through this alone. Support groups and counseling are available. Taking time away to feel light hearted and free from responsibilities is a way to add balance to your life. This journey is an endurance test. You need to pace yourself and take breaks along the way. The AHA recommends regular activity, a healthy diet and laughter as a way to stay healthy as a caregiver. Most importantly stay connected to your world and relationships. Don’t let this disease rob you of your life and take over your identity.  There is life after caregiving. Remember to honor your loved one by living your life to its fullest.


God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;  Courage to change the things I can; And wisdom to know the difference.

Serenity Prayer

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