Caring Currents

Is It Okay to "Spy" on a Relative With Suspected Dementia?

Last updated: Oct 06, 2009

Elderly Woman and Younger Woman

Say you notice signs of dementia in a loved one who doesn't live with you. What's the best way to get a fix on what's really going on?

"Only her hairdresser knows for sure" is the punchline of an old hair-dye commercial. It may also be a clue to deciding how your relative with suspected Alzheimer's or another dementia is truly faring.

A new study showing hairstylists are often privy to older clients' health issues reminded me of a heated family debate I once witnessed among long-distance family members over what was really going on with their mom. Alost 90, she'd been showing signs of dementia or some other cognitive trouble:

  • One faction was in flat-out denial. Nothing was wrong with Mom! She still went swimming, bought groceries, made it to church most Sundays, and most importantly, assured everyone she was "fine."

  • One faction relied on firsthand observations. Trouble is, no one was able to visit terribly often. When they did, sure, they noticed Mom was a little forgetful. But she seemed to be managing all right (or, rather, holding it all together) in the bright glare of a brief visit. The family already handled her money and took care of household maintenance for her.

  • One faction "“- the one that made the others angry "“- started asking around. The son called Mom's best friend, admitted worry, and asked how she felt her friend was managing, living alone. He asked the neighbors if they'd noticed anything different. He asked around at the church and the pool. (He didn't ask her hairdresser, though this idea seems brilliant, when someone has a longtime stylist. Haircuts happen monthly and last long enough for some telling chatter to take place.)

The other family members were appalled at what they perceived as an invasion of privacy. They bristled at the word "dementia" being raised with non-family members. A big row ensued.

But it turned out that this approach was the catalyst to getting the mother to a safer situation. The son learned that his mother's best friend was quite worried, unsure whether to speak up, and had been urging her to see a doctor about memory lapses. The gym reported some worrisome unusual behaviors that could have financial consequences. Neighbors had noticed her dressed inappropriately for the weather. And everyone was happy, even relieved, to be asked.

That's a long story to make the point that soliciting insights from those who know someone you suspect of having signs and symptoms of Alzheimer's or another dementia can be lifesaving. It isn't spying. It isn't wrong. Behavior isn't nefarious when it's well-intentioned and loving. Especially when it moves you down the path to diagnosing Alzheimer's disease.

That's called a good deed. Alzheimer's ultimately isn't a private shame; it's a collective worry.