10 Signs It Might Be Time for Memory Care

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Unlike many health conditions, which tend to develop or at least come to light all at once, dementia comes on gradually, and the signs can be confusing and easy to miss -- or misunderstand. And the dementia symptoms most people are familiar with, such as memory loss, confusion, and disorientation, are not the only signs that someone may be developing Alzheimer's or another type of dementia. Dementia symptoms can include delusions, agitation, sleeplessness, and extreme personality changes that can profoundly affect what your family member needs from a living situation. Whether your family member is living independently or is in assisted living or another type of senior living, you may begin to feel she has more specialized needs that aren't being met. This is the time to investigate whether your loved one could benefit from memory care, a specialized facility, unit, or program that's structured, licensed, and staffed to handle the increased demands of caring for patients with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. Here are the top 10 signs it's time to consider moving your loved one to a memory care unit.

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1. Safety: You Worry About Her All the Time

The number-one concern family members have about a loved one with Alzheimer's or dementia is their physical safety, caregiving experts say. People with Alzheimer's, dementia, and memory loss become confused, wander, and become agitated and even physically violent very easily. These problems can put them into all sorts of situations in which they endanger their health and safety. And these problems are in addition to any physical conditions they may have. When evaluating your loved one's safety, ask yourself how often each day you worry about her, check on her, or make a call regarding her safety or whereabouts. If your loved one has fallen, had a driving accident, or suffered an unexplained injury, these are additional red flags.

2. Caregiver Burnout: You or Other Family Members Are Exhausted

Caring for someone with dementia is mentally draining and physically exhausting. If a spouse or another family member is providing the bulk of care for your family member with Alzheimer's, the situation is not sustainable and is ultimately dangerous. Caregiver burnout is a very real problem -- over time, the caregiver's physical and mental health will suffer and you'll have a dual problem to solve. Even when a loved one with Alzheimer's is still able to take care of her own physical needs, she may be emotionally volatile and extremely unpleasant at times. Dealing with irrational demands and being yelled at is stressful for family caregivers, while memory care professionals have the training and patience for handling these situations.

3. Health Care Needs: Memory Loss Is Preventing Your Loved One From Taking Care of Her Health

One of the first things to go out the window when someone has memory loss is medication management. And failing to take prescribed medications on schedule -- or taking too much -- can lead to serious health problems. Dementia also affects your loved one's ability to prepare and eat a nutritious diet. You may notice food on the counter that should have been refrigerated, or your family member may skip meals altogether. Chronic conditions such as COPD and heart disease may worsen rapidly if Alzheimer's interferes with your family member's ability to manage treatment.

4. Isolation: Dementia Is Shrinking Your Loved One's World

Does this sound familiar? You can't take your mom out to eat, shop, or exercise because her behavior is so unpredictable. But at the same time, if she doesn't have ways to be active and work out her energy, she's even more likely to be disruptive. The result: She rarely goes out and is restless and lonely. Welcome to the dilemma that leads many families to consider memory care. Professional memory care staff are trained to use distraction, redirection, and other techniques to keep residents calm and safe. Memory care programs are equipped to provide activities and stimulation -- including trips and outings -- that can help your loved one burn some energy without you or others turning to medication to damp her down. Fear of driving also isolates those with dementia, and in a memory care facility your loved one will have supervised transportation when she needs it.

5. Unexplained Physical Changes: Your Loved One Looks Different

When you hug your family member, does she feel different? Weight changes, frailty, hunched posture, and moving with difficulty can all indicate that your loved one's ability to navigate the world is declining. She may be losing weight because she forgets to eat, or gaining weight because she forgets she's eaten and eats again. Hunched posture and moving slowly can be signs of being unsure -- does she know where she's going?

6. Hygiene Problems: Dementia Is Interfering With Personal Care

It's not easy to talk about body odor, but it can provide one of the strongest clues that your loved one is losing the ability to care for herself. Look for other changes in appearance as well, such as unwashed or wrinkled clothes, or even putting clothes on backwards or inside out. If your father, formerly clean-shaven, starts looking stubbly, he may be forgetting to shave or even how to shave. Likewise, if your formerly well-coiffed mother begins to look shaggy, she may be missing or forgetting to make her hair appointments.

7. Money Issues: Your Loved One Is Neglecting Finances

Look around: Is mail piling up unopened? Worse, are you seeing creditor envelopes or collection notices? Losing track of financial matters is one of the first signs of dementia for many people. Look for unpaid bills, and check taxes and property taxes to make sure they've been paid. If possible, examine your parents' bank statements for signs of unusual activity.

8. Fraud: Your Loved One Is Being Scammed

People with Alzheimer's and dementia are easy targets for hucksters, scammers, and unscrupulous salespeople. If you notice that your loved one is making strange purchases, giving to new charities, or investing in questionable financial products, these can all indicate the onset of memory loss and other dementia-related issues. Some charities will approach seniors over and over again, and if your loved one doesn't remember donating, she may contribute each time.

9. Living Conditions: Fire and Water Damage Can Mean Memory Loss

Whether your loved one lives independently or in senior living, check her physical environment for burn and scorch marks and other signs of damage that can provide important clues to her mental state. Memory loss makes it much more likely that someone will leave a burner on or drop a dishtowel on top of a pilot light and not notice the smoke. And if your loved one smokes, check blankets, mattresses, floors, and counters for scorch marks from dropped cigarette butts.

Look for stains, mold, and other signs of water damage as well -- your loved one may leave the water running until the bathtub overflows, for example. Even spills that haven't been wiped up suggest loss of attention. If a beloved garden or houseplants die because no one remembers to water them, that's a telltale sign as well.

10. Multiplying Items: Unnecessary Purchases or Hoarding Can Signal Dementia

Is your loved one's coffee table covered with untouched magazines, her bathroom shelves stacked with bars of soap, her freezer full of unopened frozen meals? Repeatedly purchasing multiples of the same item is often an early sign that someone's mental faculties are declining. Your loved one might buy something, then not remember next time she's at the store and buy it again. An unwillingness to throw things away ("But I might need that in the future") can also be a sign that someone's grip on reality is fading. And, of course, if your loved one is showing signs of hoarding, that's an even more serious warning to seek a safer living situation.

Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio

about 1 month, said...

CAR ACCIDENTS! When you start seeing scratches and dents on cars, you're seeing signs that little bumps are going unnoticed or are forgotten. My mother, who is physically strong and can play golf and tennis, is having these bumps and scratches appear too frequently. I told my doctor (who is a neighbor and friend) that my brother-in-law's father had had two car accidents in the last two weeks. My doctor immediately said, "If he's had 2 car accidents in 2 weeks, he's lost 25% to 50% of his cognitive ability." He said that at this point, they are covering, and can deal with routine. However, anything that breaks from routine can have disastrous circumstances. When my brother-in-law got out to see his father, who lived 5 hours away, he found that there were many other things his father was doing (or wasn't doing) that were putting him at extreme risk. Long distance caregiving (my mother lives 2 hours from both my sister and from myself) is extremely difficult, and you'll get surprises every time you visit.

3 months, said...

Hello, my name is Nancy. My Dad is approaching his 88th birthday, my Mom is 84 and they are approaching their 60 year wedding anniversary. I have two brothers and tw sisters, 2 nieces & 3 nephews, all young adults. My parents have an in-law at my sisters and my Dad has Dementia. My Mom is his primary care taker and was diagnosed with shingles last week. Mom can’t take care of my Dad (even w the in-house care and the family’s contribution). The decision has been made that its time to move Dad into a memory care facility. I feel so helpless, scared, and am having a hard time with acceptance. I have very strong faith, as do my parents and truly believe God will take care of all of us. This is all about my Mom at this point, her health, wellbeing and happiness. Does anyone have any suggestions on how making this transition a little less painful, stressful and letting Dad know how much we love him..? Blessings, Nancy

about 1 year, said...

COST? I am terrified of the cost for good memory care. How do people pay for this?

over 1 year, said...

It can be so hard to even see it when it's in front of you. We knew that my mother was suffering dementia by the doctor's diagnosis. But my father had so, so many of these signs manifesting and we wrote it off to him just being stubborn, the way he could be. We lost him last year in a sudden accident. Only in hindsight do we (my sisters and I ) now start to see that what we thought was him fighting us, was in fact more than likely Alzheimer's setting in. Mother is in a memory care facility now. The disease is a horrible thief but we are holding onto the days we can spend with her all the more tightly now having seen Dad go. She may not be the "same" mom but she is STILL mom and we love her.

almost 2 years, said...

My wife doesn't realize she needs to urinate during sleep. What can be done without washing sheets every day? Jim mazoop@aol.com

over 2 years, said...

My 88 yrs old mother, whom I have cared for in my home for the past three years, is only 19yrs older than myself. I'm now 69yrs my husband is about to turn 70yrs. This article serves to reinforce the fact that whilst my mother suffers dementia my husband and myself are now beginning to show signs. After a visit to my doctor to discuss my own symptoms I have been left with the opinion that caring for my mother is causing a decline in both my husband's and my cognitive abilities.. Could this be a possibility as in no way can I afford such a risk to my husband let alone myself.?

over 2 years, said...

A nice job for dementia. It's very usual that you can ignore its symptoms because it is a normal habit of memory miss in rush working day. But when one usually gets this type of issue, they need care.

over 2 years, said...

My husband thinks I am his sister who is in a care facility in Arizona. He is 80 years old & we have been married almost 59 years. I'm sure he is getting dimencia. How do I answer him when he thinks I am soneone else?

over 3 years, said...

It was excellent for making me face reality! My husband and I have been married 50 years, and it has been so easy for me to keep saying, "It's not time yet." This made me realize it is past time. Thank you.

over 3 years, said...

Thank you for a very straightforward article. It is so difficult to talk about this with primary caregivers. Maybe this will open a door.