Ask Deborah: Memory Problems & Diagnosis

This article is reprinted with permission from the Alzheimer’s Association of the Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Calif. chapter, and is excerpted from their quarterly publication Side by Side, Fall 2000. Deborah Dunn MFT, is the director of patient and family services at the Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Calif. chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Q: My father is having problems with his memory and I have tried to convince mom and he to go to the doctor, but their response is, “What’s the point, if there’s no cure?” What do I say to this?

A: There are many important reasons to go to the doctor, and much they can do to be pro-active with dad’s memory loss. Primarily, a diagnosis is important to rule out any reversible causes for memory loss, such as thyroid dysfunction or B-12 deficiency. It is equally important to find the cause of the memory loss in order to prescribe proper medication, such as high blood pressure meds if dad is having small strokes, or if the diagnosis is Alzheimer’s, to prescribe a medicine which could help to lessen and slow down the symptoms, such as Aricept or Exelon. Given a diagnosis of memory impairment, there is much your folks can do to get information and support from their local Alzheimer’s chapter which will allow them to better cope and to plan ahead.

Q: My mom doesn’t know that she was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease as her physician did not come right out and tell her. My siblings and I want to be able to talk to her about the diagnosis but we’re afraid of how she will handle it. What should we do?

A: Many families face this dilemma. First, I would encourage you to elicit the aid of your physician as a resource. A family meeting with the doctor, when he or she understands that a primary purpose is to help your mother understand her medical condition, can be very supportive for everybody involved. A family counselor or social worker may be of great help, as well.

There is no definitive answer as to how, when or, in some cases, whether to tell a person of their diagnosis. This is an individual decision, hopefully based on how it will help the diagnosed person, or not. It is common that persons with memory impairment will feel relief in knowing that there is a physical cause for what they may be experiencing, though for some it is not necessarily best to label it with the word Alzheimer’s.

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