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When loved ones change

Daughter having conversation with senior mother

As a young child growing up in the back blocks of Australia, this time of year would always bring with it warm weather, the harvest, a prayer we wouldn’t receive summer rain that would spoil the crop and the wish that we would get away from the farm for a short while.

Summer also brought with it the excitement that Christmas was just around the corner.  Life seemed simpler then.  Our farm was on the rabbit proof fence.  My sister and I shared great excitement one year in our early teens after dad announced it looked like a good crop and mum could choose either a hot water service or a flushing loo for her Christmas gift (we had neither luxuries at the time). My sister and I begged mum to choose the flushing loo.  She obliged, and we were happy.

I recall a year or so ago talking with a group of older people about their favourite Christmas memories.  One gentleman shared that his favourite was the year, as a young boy, in the first early morning light he reached down to explore his stocking for gifts.  In it was a whole, fresh orange.  It was wartime England, rations were in place and fresh food was scarce and expensive.  He had never held or eaten a fresh orange.  He said he could still vividly remember the rich citrus smell of it and the feel and taste of the cool juice dripping on his skin as he later sat to eat it.

Fast forward to adulthood, and we know that Christmas isn’t always joyous for everyone.  We know that many feel loneliness from geographic distance, broken relationships or simply too little meaningful human connection in their lives.

Another issue stalking our Christmas merriment is the increasingly common realisation that, on visiting family elders, we notice they are not as capable or confident as we remember, or as they make out to be in the phone calls you’ve shared since your last visit.  One of the issues that may concern you is whether your loved one is experiencing some cognitive impairment from a dementia.  And if so, what should you do about it?

At Alzheimer’s WA, we historically receive a spike in calls after Christmas from people concerned about changes in their loved ones. The early signs of dementia are most often subtle and incremental, and they vary from person to person. Often they aren’t noticed until an event such as Christmas brings the whole family together.

You may notice your loved one is having difficulty recalling simple words, or substituting inappropriate words making sentences difficult to understand. Perhaps they are withdrawn when once they were the life of the party. They may have trouble recalling the names of your children, or that you are married, or divorced.

If, after the Christmas pudding has worn off and the frivolity of the day has subsided and you are still worried, you may want to sensitively speak with the person or their partner about your concerns. It may not be dementia, but it is important to visit a GP to investigate any cause for the symptoms.

There are a number of conditions that can cause symptoms similar to dementia and it important to rule these out first. Chronic stress and depression are also common complaints around the festive season and can present as memory loss.

If it is dementia, an official diagnosis from a GP is the first step towards accessing early intervention services and support. If you don’t feel comfortable, or don’t know how to approach your loved one, you can call Alzheimer’s WA for advice.  We can also connect your loved one with services and supports available in their local area.

Giving care and support to face this difficult issue is one of the great gifts you can give at Christmas.  It may be the single gift your loved one truly needs.

Early signs of dementia

Short term or recent memory loss

Increased forgetfulness, difficulty remembering things even after being reminded.

Difficulty performing known tasks

Noticeable difference in ability to perform a task that is usually easy for the person.

Disorientation to time and place

Becoming lost in an area that is well-known to the person. Having trouble recalling what day, month or year it is.

Errors in judgement

Making rash decisions while driving, or spending more money than normal.

Losing or misplacing objects

Leaving items in irrational places. Forgetting you even had an item in the first place.

Changes in mood

Noticeable and frequent mood swings. Apathy towards previously enjoyed activities or events.


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