Published on December 19, 2017

Four Tips For Assessing an Elderly Loved One's Mental Ability

4 Tips For Assessing An Elderly Loved One's Mental Ability

Worried that your parents’ or grandparents’ mental abilities might be slipping? Holiday gatherings may present a great time to do a quick mental checkup. Here are some tips to help:

What to look for:

1) Frequent repeating of questions or stories. We all repeat ourselves from time to time. If a family member asks a question, listens to your response and then asks again without awareness of having recently asked you, there may be concern.

2) Not performing regular tasks. If a family member has mail piling up that they have not gotten to, or if the casserole they make every year just didn’t turn out right this year, that could be a cause for concern.

3) Becoming withdrawn. If your aunt who loved to talk now waits to be asked a question before speaking, this may be a sign of declining mental abilities.

4) Doesn’t enjoy the activities they once loved. If your card-shark uncle isn’t asking others to join in this year, consider asking why. Withdrawing from activities, interests and social situations is often a first sign of declining mental ability, but it can also signify depression.

What to do:

1) Ask your loved one if they are worried. Sometimes people are very aware of and concerned about their memory slipping. Sometimes they don’t realize their mental status is slipping. Some people will become very defensive if you bring it up. Start the conversation with respect and a genuine sense of caring and curiosity. This helps the person on the other end to more likely share and listen.

2) Testing can help. Testing (called neurocognitive testing) lets doctors know more about memory and thinking abilities and what might be contributing to any decline. Some memory decline is part of aging. While some memory changes are normal, more significant decline – and dementia – is not normal. Remember, there can be causes other than the highly feared Alzheimer’s disease that contribute to memory decline. Medications, vitamin deficiency and depression can also affect our memory abilities.

3) Consult a health care professional. Encourage your loved one to talk with their health care provider. Their physician may do a brief memory screening and look into some possible causes. In most cases, a physician will recommend neurocognitive testing with a neuropsychologist. They specialize in differentiating normal cognitive aging from dementia. These specialists can identify the most likely cause(s) of decline and recommend ways of dealing with memory loss.

About the Author

MaryBeth Bailar, PsyDMaryBeth Bailar, PsyD, is a neuropsychologist at LeBauer Neurology in Greensboro.