Is scratching a symptom of Alzheimer's?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My mom is 92. She is constantly scratching her head and doesn't know she is even doing it. I have bought her a wig because she has scratched all her hair off, but she still goes under the wig and scratched. She says it's just a habit. She is very lonely and wants me with her all the time. I am 61. My husband and I do all we can, we live right next door. She can get her breakfast and likes to sit outside, but she constantly will fall asleep. She has lost her short term memory and just don't care anymore. Does my mom have Alzheimer's? She won't go to a nursing home, which is okay as long as I can take care of her, I just seem to be getting a little stressed myself.

Expert Answer

Ron Kauffman is a certified senior advisor (CSA), senior lifestyle radio host, syndicated newspaper columnist, and the author of Caring for a Loved One With Alzheimer's Disease. In addition, Kauffman is also the primary caregiver for his mother, who has Alzheimer's.

I'm sorry to hear of the challenges you're facing with your elderly mother. You're very fortunate on so many levels to have a mom who can still do so many things for herself.

Obviously, I can't do an assessment or provide a diagnosis based on your inquiry, but it sounds to me like your mom may be suffering from a combination of aging, depression and dementia, possibly in the form of Alzheimer's disease.

The best thing you can do for your mother and your own peace of mind is get a definitive diagnosis regarding her attitude of "not caring," her short term memory loss, and her habit of "always" scratching her head.

I suggest that you contact the Alzheimer's Association in your area to ask for a recommendation of a geriatric neurologist to provide you with a definitive diagnosis of her memory loss and level of depression. It is conceivable that she has one or both problems, and it's possible that her attitude of not caring can be treated with medications. Be sure to mention mom's head scratching to the neurologist, as it may be either a behavior issue or a separate medical condition.

If it is a medical condition, I also suggest that you have your mother seen by a dermatologist to find out the cause of her itchy scalp and get the appropriate treatment to resolve the problem.

Based upon the neurologists definitive diagnosis, if your mom does have a form of dementia such as Alzheimer's disease, you can then ask if any of the current drugs that treat mild-to-moderate memory loss are appropriate for her AND to test them to find out if they can be tolerated by your mother.

In addition, if the diagnosis is dementia, contact your local Alzheimer's Association. Ask about support groups, respite care options for you and your husband, and about becoming educated as to what to expect and how to deal with mom's memory loss as it continues to decline in the months ahead.

The bottom line for your multi-faceted questions is to have mom examined by the appropriate medical experts and get a solid diagnosis so you know what she and you are actually dealing with as you go forward.

I hope that the diagnoses might be simple depression and perhaps a mild form of a skin irritation "“ both of which can readily be treated with medicines. If it turns out to be dementia, your best options are to be informed and begin planning for the inevitable decline based on both mom's memory loss and her age. Best of luck.