Do I tell my mother her memory trouble is Alzheimer's?

1 answer | Last updated: Sep 14, 2017
A fellow caregiver asked...

For several years, we've noticed that my 82-year-old mother has been repeating herself, losing things, and acting forgetful. Recently, when I took her for a regular checkup, I mentioned my concerns to her doctor -- out of her earshot -- and after the exam, he said she had probable Alzheimer's. She didn't seem to hear him (she has bad hearing anyway). Should we make sure she understands what he said or let her go on thinking she's okay?

Expert Answers

Lisa Snyder is a social worker at the University of California, San Diego, Shiley-Marcos Alzheimer's Disease Research Center

What you do depends on the degree to which your mother is troubled by or aware of her symptoms. Does she ever express frustration with herself, exasperation, or a sense of loss that she can't do things she used to be able to do? If you asked her directly whether her memory was giving her any difficulty, would she say yes?

If so, it's only fair to give her a medical explanation for what she's experiencing. Otherwise, she could blame herself or feel frustrated, alone, or frightened. It may reassure her to know that her physician is aware of the situation.

Given your mother's hearing loss, it's important to give her the information the doctor disclosed to make sure she did hear his words. I would try to be direct: "The doctor says you probably have Alzheimer's disease." If appropriate, stress that it's mild, which is usually the case on first diagnosis, and what's being done about it: "The doctor says you may have some early symptoms of Alzheimer's, which happens to many people in their 80s, and it's being treated."

If your mother denies having Alzheimer's after you discuss this with her, she may at least acknowledge memory loss, and you can communicate using those terms. If she denies having any problems at all, let it go for now, but don't close the door completely. People with Alzheimer's can simply forget that they are forgetful, so they may have limited awareness of the problem. Sometimes patients deny problems one day and disclose some awareness of them on another day. One man with Alzheimer's put it this way: "A degree of denial is essential. Like someone drinking hot coffee, we sip the truth of our condition carefully and gently."