Have you ever needed help – probably from a 10 year old – recording a television show or using your new microwave/convection oven? Have you ever made a wrong turn when trying to get somewhere you’d never been? If so, don’t worry. That kind of difficulty is not a warning sign of Alzheimer’s. Warning sign #3 involves more serious problems: “difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure.”
People with Alzheimer’s often find it hard to complete daily tasks. Sometimes, people may have trouble driving to a familiar location, managing a budget at work or remembering the rules of a favorite game.
Dad never owned a GPS, but he was always good with a map. After he retired from the Post Office, he worked for an insurance agent for a while. As one of his duties, he sometimes did on-site inspections of properties that were being considered for coverage. Armed with his trusty MAPSCO, he drove all over the Dallas/Ft. Worth area with no problems. But after he left that job, he began to have trouble navigating even the most familiar territory.
By the time David and I moved to Florida, Mom and Dad had declined to the point that we could not leave them alone in Texas. After reviewing all the options, we all agreed that they would come with us. Their house sold before ours, so they moved in with us a month before we the big day. Dad lived in Carrollton for 20 years, but approaching the town from a different perspective was disorienting. Once, he wanted to go to the bank, but he couldn’t find it, so he gave up and came home. And then there was the day he REALLY got lost. He left the house after lunch to take Mom to the beauty salon. The next time I heard from him was at 9:30 that night when he called from a convenience store about 5 miles away asking me to come get them. He had driven who-knows-where for over 9 hours with no idea of where he was or how to get home. He had no cell phone, and I was frantic, wondering how long I should wait before calling the police.
When we got to Florida, I hoped the Department of Public Safety would help me put a stop to his driving, but getting a license was way too easy for a man who had trouble walking, signing his name, and finding his identification. But you can’t fight City Hall, and he got a new license. The one time he tried to drive in Florida was shortly after our arrival. He and Mom tired of my cooking, or maybe tired of being told what to do and when, and they decided to go out for a hamburger. After an hour of driving in circles through our subdivision, they returned home and ate the sandwiches I had prepared for them. Shortly after that, I confiscated his keys.
Not long after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Mom’s neurologist told her that her reflexes had deteriorated to the point that it was no longer safe for her to drive. She had no idea what that meant, but if the Doctor said it, it must be true. Because she gave up the wheel so easily, this warning sign didn’t assert itself in her navigational abilities, but it showed up in her daily game of Solitaire. She read somewhere or heard on one of the talk shows she watched that playing games was good mental exercise for the elderly. She also knew it wasn’t a great idea to lie down for a nap immediately after a meal, so she developed the habit of playing Solitaire for a while after lunch. When I was there, I sat at the table, talking with her or watching as she manipulated the deck. She had a unique way of shuffling, spreading the deck out on the table and scooting the cards around like a set of dominoes. As her Alzheimer’s progressed, she also developed a unique set of rules for the game. I watched her move the cards from one stack to another in a random manner that apparently made sense to her, and since she continued to enjoy herself, I never questioned what she was doing. But when we got to Florida with a new set of routines, her cards stayed in the box, and she almost always took a nap immediately after lunch.
These posts on warning signs are meant to serve two purposes. First, for those of us who are getting older than we care to admit, it helps to know that the small mental lapses we’re experiencing are typical age-related changes. On the other hand, if we recognize any of the signs in ourselves or those we love, we can seek early intervention. For more information about Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, contact the Alzheimer’s Association at 800.272.3900 or www.alz.org.