Advice Mind & Memory Care

How Do I Explain the Difference Between Normal Aging and Dementia to Seniors and Their Families?

Woman hugging older woman

Dear Benchmark,

I am a social worker for a local, non-profit home health agency. Our team is often asked by families of our senior clients what changes in their loved one are a part of normal aging and which are signs of a more serious problem.

In most cases, we know the family is really asking us if the senior they love has Alzheimer’s disease. And we all have a difficult time answering it.

We would appreciate any information we can share with families to help them understand the difference.


Normal Signs of Aging vs. Early Alzheimer’s Disease

Dear Todd:

It can be difficult to distinguish between the two! And adult children often panic and assume the worst if an aging parent misplaces their glasses or has trouble finding the right word during a conversation.

Families should be encouraged to consult with a physician to address specific concerns about a loved one.  For general information, here are a few ways the experts from the Alzheimer’s Association say you can distinguish between normal aging and a condition that requires a medical intervention.

Forgetfulness: We all forget things from time to time, including appointments. If a senior forgets an appointment, but later remembers they missed it, chances are good it is nothing to be concerned about. If they not only missed the appointment but forgot they even had one, it may indicate a problem.
Misplacing belongings: Another behavior many people associate with Alzheimer’s disease is misplacing items. The reality is that every one of us misplaces belongings from time to time. What is different for a person who has memory loss is they can’t always remember where they’ve been earlier in the day. So they are unable to retrace their steps to find their misplaced possession.
Losing track of the date: When you retire and don’t have to get up and go to work every day, it isn’t uncommon to forget what the date is. Once you find out, however, you can usually reorient yourself to the current day and time. People with Alzheimer’s or a similar form of dementia may not be able to do that. They may be unable to recall what day or month it is or even what year.
Trouble maintaining a conversation: Each of us may occasionally have trouble remembering a name during a conversation or have difficulty finding the word we want to use. For an older adult with Alzheimer’s, however, conversations become increasingly difficult to maintain. A person with memory loss may repeat themselves several times or ask the same question over and over during the same conversation. Those who suspect they have a problem might even withdraw and become less social in an effort not to be embarrassed that they can’t keep up their end of a conversation.
Difficult managing finances: Tucking a bill away with the intention of paying later and then forgetting to do so isn’t uncommon or concerning on occasion. But people with Alzheimer’s may neglect paying bills completely. You might find several months of unopened bills in a stack on their counter. Or they might be paying some bills several times while neglecting others completely.
Loss of good judgment:  An older adult who is having cognitive struggles due to some form of dementia is more likely to fall victim to identity theft or fraud. They might give away money, run up credit card debt or even develop a gambling problem. This is because Alzheimer’s disease impacts reasoning skills and judgment.

One resource your clients and their families might find helpful is the National Memory Screening program. With sites across the country, it can be a non-threatening way for a senior to have their memory evaluated by an objective health care professional. There is usually no cost for this confidential evaluation.

I hope this information helps, Todd!

Mind & Memory Care
Understanding Options