By Ambria Armstrong, Elder Law Clinic Student, Fall 2015

Today, there are over five million Americans living with Alzheimer’s, and it is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. No one wants to consider the possibility that their loved one may be showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease, but recognizing the early signs is important – for proper care, and for legal purposes.  It may be harder than you think to determine if your loved one is competent to make his own decisions, and it may be uncomfortable to bring up the possibility.  Some signs of Alzheimer’s or dementia might appear to you like simple signs of old age. The Alzheimer’s Association provides ten symptoms to watch for:

  1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life. However, a typical age-related change would be to sometimes forget names or appointments, but remembering them later.
  2. Challenges in planning or solving problems. Making occasional errors when balancing a checkbook is nothing to be concerned about, but having trouble following a familiar recipe might be a sign of Alzheimer’s.
  3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home or work. Needing help driving to a familiar location or remembering the rules to a favorite game may be signs of Alzheimer’s, but you shouldn’t be worried about helping your loved one to use technology, for example.
  4. Confusion with time or place. People with Alzheimer’s can lose track of dates, seasons, and the passage of time, or trouble understanding something if it is happening in the future.
  5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationship. Vision changes related to cataracts or old age are nothing to be concerned about, but you may want to consider all of these factors if your loved one has trouble judging distance or determining color.
  6. New problems with words in speaking or writing. People with Alzheimer’s may have trouble holding a conversation; they may repeat themselves, struggle with vocabulary, or call things by the wrong name.
  7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps.
  8. Decreased or poor judgment. They may, for example, give large amounts of money to telemarketers, or pay less attention to their cleanliness.
  9. Withdrawal from work or social activities. People with Alzheimer’s may have trouble keeping up with their favorite sports team or remembering how to do their favorite hobbies. They may also avoid being social because some of these other changes they have been experiencing.
  10. Changes in mood and personality. A person with Alzheimer’s may frequently become confused, suspicious, depressed, fearful, or anxious.

If you notice these signs in yourself or your loved one, you should make an appointment with your doctor. Do not ignore them.  With early detection, you can get some treatments which may help with some of the symptoms, and you can plan for future care, living arrangements, and legal options for your estate.

Just a few weeks ago, there was a Walk to End Alzheimer’s here in Williamsburg. So what kinds of research are medical professionals doing to work towards the end of Alzheimer’s?  Out of the top ten leading causes of death, Alzheimer’s is the only one that cannot be prevented, cured, or slowed. There are medications for some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, such as medications for memory loss and confusion, irritability, anxiety, depression, or sleep changes. Researchers are working to understand brain functioning to determine what causes the changes in the brain with Alzheimer’s disease.

If your loved one is not competent to make his or her own decisions, it’s important to make sure they are properly cared for.  If your loved one has a full durable power of attorney, that will be sufficient to allow their directed agent to make decisions regarding care of the elderly person. However, if no durable power of attorney exists, a friend or family member can petition the court to obtain guardianship or conservatorship.  This is another way to make sure that someone with Alzheimer’s receives the care and living arrangements they need.  It is important to recognize the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s early, so that the elderly person’s wishes can be known and carried out in their best interest.  For more information on Alzheimer’s disease, please visit the Alzheimer’s Association website.