Dementia signs may be subtle in the early stages. Your mom may have trouble recalling certain words, or your dad may forget to pay a few bills. It’s possible they don’t even realize they’re showing signs of dementia — or they may not want you to know.
“For so many years, dementia has been a stigma,” says Brenda Gurung, a certified dementia practitioner for the Alzheimer’s Association and a senior national account manager at A Place for Mom. “But specific dementia diagnoses are diseases — they don’t mean you’re a failure of a person.”
It can be devastating to receive a dementia diagnosis. But getting help sooner rather than later may prevent accidents, financial problems, and other troubling consequences of dementia behaviors in the elderly. Learn ways your loved one may be covering up dementia symptoms, and understand steps you can take to help.
Many people are reluctant to reveal dementia signs to avoid negative stereotypes, shame, or embarrassment, according to a study of anxiety and stigma in dementia. It’s not uncommon for someone in the early stages of dementia to be in denial, keep it a secret, or drift away socially. This can lead to social isolation, overdependence on family, and decreased quality of life, the researchers write.
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Sometimes, behavior that seems like dementia denial or avoidance may actually be a lack of awareness. People with anosognosia — a medical condition defined as lack of insight — don’t realize they have a cognitive impairment. They may be aware of some symptoms without realizing dementia is involved, or their awareness may fluctuate.
If you notice these behaviors in your aging parent, they may be covering up dementia symptoms.
The refusal to do a regular chore, play a game they once enjoyed, or try something new could signal early signs of dementia. Your mom or dad may shy away from familiar activities that were once second nature because they can no longer remember how to do them.
“Someone in the early stages of dementia will exhibit two coping mechanisms when their favorite activity becomes too overwhelming,” says Gurung. “They may turn inward and self-isolate, or point the blame toward others.”
Whether they’re having trouble driving, balancing a checkbook, or interacting with friends and family, it’s not uncommon for people with dementia to simply not talk about incidents or lie when confronted.
A person who’s reluctant to disclose dementia signs may not be the only one in denial or keeping a secret — their partner may cover up signs as well. A spouse may jump in to complete tasks, finish sentences, or make excuses for behavior that’s out of the ordinary.
Insisting they’re fine when there’s an obvious problem often points to denial. Comments such as “This is normal forgetfulness for my age,” or “I’m fine — I’m just tired” are common ways people deflect problems triggered by dementia.
With some dementias, the brain’s frontal lobe is affected early on. This area controls a person’s executive function and filter.
“In conversations, you may notice your loved one isn’t following their train of thought,” Gurung says. “Maybe they monopolize the discussion with topics that are comfortable to them, like old stories or their favorite hobbies. Or they may even make inappropriate comments, jokes, innuendos, or slurs.”
She adds that while the signs can be subtle, your conversations may feel slightly uncomfortable, which can be a sign of dementia behavior.
Your parent’s actions and appearance may speak louder than words. They may lose interest, feel depressed, or slowly stop taking time for themselves. If your mom loves doing her hair and makeup each day, but says she no longer feels like it, she may have stopped caring.
If your dad is skipping showers, or is wearing the same clothes each day without washing them, he may say something like, “It’s easier,” or “I don’t have time.” Changes in your loved one’s appearance and hygiene — or if their personality seems lethargic or apathetic — are common dementia signs that may be downplayed.
Although it’s not abnormal to forget an appointment every now and then, it is unusual to forget important dates like birthdays, anniversaries, or holidays regularly. Another early sign of dementia is consistently losing track of the date or even the time of year. Your mom may say she’s misplaced her calendar — or your dad may say he can’t find his watch — but beware of these subtle and early signs of dementia.
Talk about the signs and symptoms of dementia, find professional advice, and plan accordingly. If your parent is having trouble with everyday living and responsibilities, talk to them and address the signs you’re noticing.
S. National Library of Medicine. “Dementia.” https://medlineplus.gov/dementia.html
National Institute on Aging. “Alzheimer’s Disease & Related Dementias.” https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/alzheimers
Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease.” https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/alzheimers-disease/earlyonset-alzheimer-disease
Merritt Whitely is an editor at A Place for Mom. She developed health content for seniors at Hearing Charities of America and the National Hearing Aid Project. She’s also managed multiple print publications, blogs, and social media channels for seniors as the marketing manager at Sertoma, Inc.