Dear Donna,

My Mom is 87 years old. She is forgetful and she says that all her friends have the same complaint and that it is just a part of getting older. My sisters and I worry that it could be something more. What do you think?

Dear Worried daughters,

You are not alone in your concern especially given Mom’s advanced age because according to the Alzheimer’s Association’s research, age is the greatest known risk factor. By the time a person is 85 they have nearly a 1 in 3 risk of having a dementia related disease. So, how do you know the difference?

It is normal to lose your keys but if you can retrace your steps and you find them in a usual place, it’s generally not a problem. If you find them somewhere they obviously don’t belong, this may signal that something more than forgetfulness. If a person cannot retrace their steps, if they continually seem to lose their train of thought and/ or repeat the same questions, if they lose track of time of day or forget where they are going or become disoriented and lost, these all signal that something more concerning may be going on.

Also, notice Mom’s gait, is she dragging or shuffling her feet? This may signal that some deficit or neurologic disease process is going on. Is she showing signs of apathy and isolating, is her personality changing, perhaps she is paranoid or angry, overly critical where she used to behave differently? Any of these changes may be warning signs.

What to do? I took my own Mom to a neurologist when I saw signs of apathy and forgetfulness, when she asked the same questions or didn’t remember that I called or what we discussed. She got on some medication and we hired help. A caregiver now makes sure Mom takes her medications appropriately, stays hydrated, eats healthy meals and stays socially and physically active. Five years later, my Mom is still living independently with some help!

And, let me caution you that if your Mom is forgetting to take her medications or forgetting that she already took them, even if you think it is normal forgetfulness, you’ve got the potential for a big problem on your hands! Be sure to create a plan to resolve this problem right away! Research tells us that half of all nursing home admissions are due to medication related issues many of which could have been prevented.