It’s normal to have difficulty accepting that your aging loved one may be experiencing early signs of dementia. Fear about the future is “the underlying emotion of denial,” according to geriatric care manager Carol Larkin. It’s human to reject what we find unpleasant or frightening. But denying signs of aging and memory impairment can be dangerous to both caregivers and elderly loved ones.
Elizabeth Loneseth, author of “A Gradual Disappearance” and “The Dangers of Denial,” learned this the hard way. Based on her experiences with her father, mother, and in-laws with dementia, she now writes about the importance of acknowledging Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of cognitive impairment.
Understanding dangers of denial to you and your aging family member can help keep everyone safe and connected through the difficulties of dementia.
1. Missed opportunities
Watching an aging family member struggle with dementia is painful — it can be like spending time with a stranger. A common reaction is to visit less often. “It was so painful seeing this brilliant man no longer able to hold a long, intelligent conversation. His communication skills became that of a young child,” says Loneseth. “So instead of visiting every month, I came every other month or every three. Deep in denial, I lost the chance to create special memories with my father.”
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2. Legal complications
When a senior is deemed mentally incompetent, they can no longer execute legal documents. Without a power of attorney, advance directives, and financial decisions in place, handling a senior’s medical treatment, long-term care, and end-of-life care is more complex.
These decisions could fall to a family member who doesn’t know or share the senior’s best interests, rather than to the person of their choice. To eliminate legal complications from denial, suggest your aging relative create advance directives now.
3. Family conflict
Denying cognitive decline can prevent you and your siblings from creating a successful dementia care plan. It also can damage family relationships irreparably.
“Denial on the part of a family member can cause family disputes,” says Loneseth. “The children in denial don’t help out, and those who are aware take on multiple burdens, sometimes alone. Often, those in denial believe their siblings are overreacting.” After an emergency or accident, the siblings who have been caregivers may blame others for not helping before the dementia became undeniable.
4. Financial repercussions
Seniors are common targets for scams and financial fraud, and memory loss increases the likelihood of writing duplicate checks, overspending, or making other poor financial choices. Alternatively, dementia can cause seniors to ignore bills, fall behind on mortgage payments, and potentially face legal consequences for nonpayment.
“Finances are private,” says Loneseth. “Parents don’t want to share this information with their children. But it’s crucial to discuss financial plans ahead of time so your family doesn’t fall under financial hardship.”
5. Caregiver health consequences
Caregivers put their own health at risk when they’re in denial about the help they need caring for a loved one. In fact, family caregivers older than 66 have a 63% higher mortality rate than non-caregivers, according to a University of Pittsburgh study.
“There are couples who have been married 40 to 60 years, and one goes downhill and the other doesn’t want the rest of the world to know. The caregiver gets sick, and the person with dementia doesn’t have care,” warns Loneseth.
If you’re caring full time for an aging relative, follow these guidelines to avoid caregiver burnout and health consequences.
1. Falls and accidents
Falls are the leading cause of both fatal and non-fatal injuries in people older than 60. Proper care and home modifications, such as installing night-lights to reduce disorientation at night, can help keep seniors safe.
But if you’re in denial about your parent’s declining health, precautions may not be made in time. Dementia behaviors, like forgetting to turn off the oven or garbage disposal, can lead to serious kitchen accidents.
2. Medication and poor nutrition
Medication overdose is common in seniors with dementia. Even if you use marked pill dispensers, your loved one could be in danger, since people with cognitive impairment often become unaware of days of the week or passage of time.
Similarly, it’s easy for seniors with dementia to neglect nutrition. They may forget to eat, eat expired food, or eat certain foods in excess. “My father-in-law would have eaten a full pound of butter in one sitting if we’d let him,” says Loneseth.
3. Accidental harm to others
Without family intervention, seniors unaware of their dementia may continue dangerous daily tasks like driving. Driving with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia endangers pedestrians and other vehicles, and it can also cause significant property damage. In the home, a senior with dementia may become disoriented and injure a spouse or family member.
4. Elder abuse
Unacknowledged dementia can leave seniors vulnerable to multiple types of elder abuse. An aging loved one may be susceptible to financial abuse, or they may be unable to report the details of physical or sexual abuse to the appropriate authorities.
Dementia can also lead to elder abuse between spouses. A senior with advanced cognitive decline may experience significant behavioral changes that lead to violence. Alternatively, a caregiver unprepared to deal with dementia behaviors could resort to yelling or other emotional abuse.
5. Delaying dementia help
“Often, a spouse is aware their husband or wife has memory impairment, but they don’t want anyone else knowing about it, so they lovingly try to protect them from the outside world and begin to cut off family and friends,” says Loneseth. “Maybe in the beginning stages a spouse can handle the needed care, but as it snowballs, it will become overwhelming. Caring for a loved one at home is draining physically, mentally and emotionally.” It also puts the senior with dementia at increased risk.
Coming to terms with dementia is difficult, but acknowledging what your loved one is going through can get them the right care and treatment for symptoms early on. Here are some tips to help you accept a dementia diagnosis and care for your aging family member.
Acceptance is the first step. After understanding the risks of denial and determining that your aging loved one may be suffering from dementia, discuss potential solutions.
“Many people think they can provide all the care themselves,” says Loneseth. “But the truth is, there is awareness, education, and medical knowledge that is needed. If your loved one is diagnosed with a heart problem and they need surgery, you wouldn’t take them home. Memory care needs to be approached in the same way.”
A Place for Mom’s Senior Living Advisors can help your family find memory care communities and home care providers near you.
Claire Samuels is a content writer at A Place for Mom. She worked with senior living communities throughout the Midwest before pivoting to writing. She’s passionate about sharing ways of living well at any age.