Tips on Spotting Dementia at Family Gatherings

Home for the Holidays? Pay Attention to These Subtle Signs

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If you're getting together soon with loved ones to celebrate the holidays, a birthday or a special anniversary, make an extra effort to be observant. Many cases of dementia go undiagnosed until they progress into the middle stages, but there are benefits for early diagnosis and treatment.

Family gatherings are a great time to take note of how your loved ones are doing, especially if you live out of town and see your them infrequently.

Since phone conversations can often hide difficulties such as early memory loss, the opportunity to be present in the same room offers you the chance to make sure things are going as well as they report that they are.

Look for These 9 Signs of Early Dementia

  • Indirect, Vague Answers or Phrases

    For example, if you ask your mother what time your brother is coming home to the party, she may respond, "Oh, pretty soon. You know Fred." Or, to multiple questions, she may answer, "You know that's just how it goes" or a similar filler phrase.

  • Deflection

    Similarly, if you ask your dad a question about his favorite sports team, he might say, "Well, what do you think?" instead of spewing all of the statistics he normally provides on the top players.

  • Word-Finding Difficulty

    We all have the occasional lapse where a word escapes us, but if you notice that happening several times throughout the evening, it's possible that there's something more going on with your loved one's health.

  • Misplaced Things

    Perhaps you're helping out in the kitchen and you offer to refill the ice. When you open the freezer, you find your aunt's glasses in there along with the ice. You also noticed that she's missing her Christmas place mats that have been a tradition for as long as you can remember. When you ask her about them, she shrugs and says she isn't sure where they went.

  • Multiple Written Notes

    Most people write notes down on their calendars or in their address book, but someone with early stage Alzheimer's might write the same things down several times on different pages. If you see several different sticky notes with similar information written on each, take a closer look at how your loved one is really doing.

  • Uncharacteristic Reliance on Spouse or Other Loved One

    If you see your father depend heavily on your mother for answers to questions and that's unusual for him, take note. You might also notice that he rarely leaves her side and if she goes off to do something, he follows closely behind or appears anxious if she's not near him. She may have been compensating for his memory loss for some time, and filling in the blanks for him in conversation.

  • Error in Making a Traditional Food Dish

    Maybe you're celebrating the holidays at your sister's house this year. You're looking forward to her famous apple dessert, but when you arrive, she tells you that it didn't turn out right this year. Or, her always perfectly fluffy and tasty mashed potatoes are chunky and watery at dinner, but she seems not to notice.

  • Unusual Irritation or Frustration

    If your long-suffering, patient Uncle Fred is notably short-tempered, easily angered, and just seems out of character, this change in personality could be a sign of early stage dementia. In some dementias, such as frontotemporal dementia, the first symptoms you might notice are behavioral changes rather than the more typical memory loss or confusion. While he could just be having an "off" day, temperament and behavioral changes that linger should be evaluated.

  • Repeating Questions

    Finally, maybe your loved one asks you how your work is going. You answer her and tell her about a recent struggle there, and a few minutes later she asks you how your job is going. You answer her again but an hour later, she again asks you about your work. While she might just be really interested in your well-being and your job, this also can be a sign that her memory is declining.

I'm Concerned. Now What?

If you've read through these scenarios and a couple of them seem all too familiar, it's important to find out more. Talk to your loved one and those close to him to determine if he's showing some of the other symptoms of early stage Alzheimer's.

If so, a physician's assessment is a must to determine if there's a reversible cause for his cognitive decline, or if he might benefit from some of the treatment available if he has early stage Alzheimer's.

More Information and Next Steps

What To Do If You're Worried That Your Loved One Has Alzheimer's


Alzheimer's Association. 10 Early Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer's. Accessed November 29, 2012.

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