Mary Foss of Eagan, Minnesota, said she knew it was time to broach this sensitive topic with her husband Darrell when she noticed he was having difficulty doing the home improvement projects he had enjoyed all his life.
“Darrell would spend hours building and fixing things around the house – it was his hobby,” Mary said. “But it got to point where he was having trouble doing even routine tasks. He would get frustrated and soon began doing less and less. I knew something was wrong, but dismissed it for a while.”
As Darrell’s retreat from activities he once loved grew, so did Mary’s concern. Eventually, Mary and the couple’s adult daughter, Michele, decided to share their concerns.
“We just told him that something is not right and you need to see a doctor and figure out what it is,” Foss said. “I thought maybe he had a mini-stroke or a brain tumor. We were shocked when the diagnosis came back as mild cognitive impairment, possibly Alzheimer’s.”
The Fosses’ story is not uncommon. Talking about memory or cognition problems with a family member can be daunting for many families. Denial, fear and difficulty initiating conversations about this sensitive subject are common barriers.
“Alzheimer’s disease is challenging, but talking about it doesn’t have to be,” said Ruth Drew, director of Information and Support Services at the Alzheimer’s Association. “Family members are typically the first to notice when something is not quite right and it’s important to discuss these concerns and follow up with your doctor.”
The Alzheimer’s Association is offering these six tips to help families facilitate conversations about Alzheimer’s and other dementias:
1. Have the conversation as early as possible – Addressing memory or cognition problems early offers an opportunity to identify the cause and take action before a crisis situation occurs.
2. Think about who’s best suited to initiate the conversation – If there is a family member, close friend or trusted adviser who holds sway, include them in the conversation.
3. Practice conversation starters – Be thoughtful in your approach. For example, consider an open-ended question such as, “I’ve noticed a few changes in your behavior lately, and I wanted to see if you’ve noticed these changes as well?”
4. Offer your support and companionship – Let your family member or friend know that you’re willing to accompany them to the doctor and offer your continuous support throughout the diagnosis process.
5. Anticipate gaps in self-awareness – Someone experiencing cognitive decline may be unaware of problems. Be prepared to navigate confusion, denial and withdrawal, as people may not want to acknowledge their mental functioning is declining.
6. Recognize the conversation may not go as planned – A family member may not be open to discussion. They may get angry, upset or simply refuse to engage. Unless it’s a crisis situation, don’t force the conversation. Take a step back, regroup and revisit the subject in a week or two.
While receiving the diagnosis was difficult, Mary Foss said it also provided a path forward.
“As difficult as it was to receive Darrell’s diagnosis, it provided an answer to what we’re facing,” Foss said. “We took a few days to grieve, but then we focused our attention on getting educated about the disease and what we can do to fight it. We are staying active and focusing on the things that are most important to us.”
For more information, visit alz.org/6Tips or www.alz.org.