Caring Currents

10 Ideas for Getting a Reluctant Person Checked for Alzheimer's

Last updated: Oct 25, 2008

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How do you find out if someone has Alzheimer's? It's a myth that there's one single test you pass or flunk. Alzheimer's is diagnosed through a thorough evaluation by qualified clinician, using various measures to rule out other possible causes of dementia symptoms.

But there is a related "test" you may have heard about -- a memory screening test. It's a quick exam that evaluates memory, language skills, thinking ability, and other aspects of intellect to indicate whether you'd benefit from a thorough medical evaluation. It simply tells you, "OK, you're probably just fine!" or "Well, there's some cognitive impairment and you should see a specialist to try and figure out why." (Many things can cause memory loss.) It doesn't diagnose Alzheimer's, but it can lead affected people to help -- and healthy people to peace of mind. It provides a baseline for a person to compare with future changes.

All good. If, that is, you can get the person you're worried about to actually get checked. That's what trips up many families. The person you worry about may be afraid, indignant, or in denial. You may be uncertain and afraid of making a mistake. But a memory evaluation can actually make everyone feel better.

Some ideas for forging ahead:

  1. Appeal to the budget-minded. Screenings are free at participating sites around the US on the fifth-annual National Memory Screening Day, November 18, sponsored by the Alzheimer's Foundation of America. Find a location and sign up now.
  2. Acknowledge fear. What you might need to say: "It's not very pleasant to think about. I'm a little nervous myself. But if we can figure out what's causing your mix-ups, then we might be able to fix them, and you can continue to live on your own."
  3. Enlist a regular doctor directly. If you have HIPAA clearance and accompany the person in your care to checkups, call ahead to ask that a note be put in the chart for a memory screening at the next visit. Or bring it up in the doctor's presence: "I've heard people over 65 should have a memory screen. Is that true?" Waggle your eyebrows meaningfully as you speak. Most will take the hint. Or ask for a referral to a neurologist.
  4. Enlist the right influencer. Maybe the suggestion carries more weight coming from a trusted attorney, a best friend, a longtime doctor (who might decide it best to make a referral to a memory clinic), or another family member.
  5. Play to pride and preferences. "This clinic is where so-and-so celebs/local elites/etc. go." That tip from The Alzheimer's Action Plan, which notes one woman finally conceded to see a specialist with a "Christian" medical practice, and another man agreed to an evaluation at a certain institution because it had once "saved his father's life." Show an ex-academic a news article about the doctor or clinic you have in mind.
  6. Make it an issue about you. "I worry about you living alone, and seeing what the doctor thinks would make me feel better."
  7. Pitch prevention. (Even if you already have your suspicions.) "I heard there are some new things older people can do to avoid memory loss -- let's find out what we can do now."
  8. Make it a group effort. "I heard that everybody should have a baseline memory screen. Why don't you, Dad, and I all go together? Let's treat ourselves to a nice lunch afterwards."
  9. Don't call it Alzheimer's. Some cultures have a strong taboo against the disease. If euphemisms will make your relative less defensive, suggest going for "a general tune-up."
  10. Persist gently. If you get resistence, drop it. The last thing you want is a power struggle. Try later with a new tactic.

Image by Flickr user khoppdelaney, used under the Creative Commons attribution license.