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8 Dementia Symptoms to Track in Elderly Parents

12 minute readLast updated May 5, 2023
Written by Merritt Whitley, senior living writer and editor
Reviewed by Erin Martinez, Ph.D.Dr. Erin Martinez is an associate professor of gerontology and director of the Center on Aging at Kansas State University, where she focuses on promoting optimal aging.
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No one knows your parents’ personalities, hobbies, or quirks like you do. So if you persistently feel that their behavior is off, there’s a good chance that it is. Aging is a well-known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. In fact, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease doubles every five years in people 65 and older. Learning to spot key dementia symptoms in aging parents and documenting the early stages of dementia can make a big difference. Your observations could provide helpful insight to doctors, which can lead to a quicker and more accurate diagnosis. Discover eight dementia behaviors to track and how to get a diagnosis and treatment.

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Does my parent have dementia?

Signs of dementia can vary, and even be tough to spot, especially if you aren’t sure what to look for. If you find yourself answering “yes” a lot on this quiz, your parent may be experiencing dementia. Keep in mind that people with dementia may only show some, not all of, the symptoms below.

1. Difficulty remembering or trouble finding words

Is your parent often tongue-tied? It’s normal for older adults to have lapses in thought here and there. But showing signs of forgetfulness every day is an early warning sign of dementia.

If your mom is frequently losing track of her thoughts mid-sentence, or if your dad has trouble finding words in casual conversations, these are dementia signs to note.

2. Inability to learn something new

Is your mom or dad struggling to absorb and retain new information? Is trying a new activity unusually difficult?

If your mom’s favorite activity is cooking, but she’s struggling to use a new appliance or follow a new recipe, dementia may be the culprit. If you notice your parents avoiding new activities or struggling to grasp a new concept, note it.

3. Struggling to manage finances

Do you notice your dad failing to properly manage bills or taxes? Does your mom struggle to balance her checkbook? Watch for bills piling up or other problem-solving skills declining, as these are common behaviors of dementia.

4. Losing track of time

Is your loved one having a hard time remembering what day it is? Are they losing track of time on an even larger scale?

If your elderly parent continues to forget the day, month, year, holidays, or other important dates, this is a red flag. Write down what they forget and how often the lapses occur.

5. Poor judgment and decision making

Have you noticed any behaviors or situations that seem out of the ordinary, like paranoia or recklessness? For example, has your mom been spending more money than normal? Has your dad stopped wearing his seat belt? If you begin to notice dangerous behavior or unsafe habits, write them down and talk to your parent’s doctor.

6. Problems remembering commitments

Is your mom missing obligations or forgetting plans? Recurring memory loss is an early sign of dementia. Everyone forgets something occasionally, but if it happens regularly, be sure to document when and how often.

For example, take note if your parents regularly forget:

  • Dentist or doctor’s appointments
  • Dinner plans with friends or family
  • Maintenance appointments for the car

7. Losing interest in favorite activities

Has your loved one lost interest in or stopped pursuing their favorite hobbies or engaging in social situations? Does your dad no longer attend his morning coffee group? Did your mom read or garden daily but no longer makes an effort? Pay attention to unusual behavior especially if it doesn’t seem related to a physical health problem.

8. Repeating themselves

Have you noticed verbal repetition in your parent’s thoughts or phrases? It can be as simple as saying the same compliment over and over, such as, “I really love those picture frames you gave me.”

If your parent repeats stories, questions, thoughts, or jokes daily, or every other day, be sure to note the frequency.

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Physical signs of dementia in elderly relatives

Perhaps you suspect that someone in your family has dementia, but your answers to the questions above seem to fall in the middle. While it may be hard to distinguish between dementia symptoms and ordinary aging, dementia typically comes with cumulative cognitive decline.

In addition to the eight major dementia symptoms above, many seniors will exhibit physical signs of this cognitive decline. Although you typically can’t tell if a person has dementia just by looking at them, you can keep an eye out for the following warning behaviors. Not everyone with dementia will show all the signs and symptoms listed below, but if you notice a pattern, it may be time to talk to a doctor.

  • Agitation. Mood changes that include confusion, irritability, depression, or anxiety are common in people with dementia. Your parent may become easily upset in different or new situations.
  • Wandering. People with dementia sometimes get lost in familiar places or walk aimlessly. Dementia wandering can happen for many reasons, including fear, anxiety, boredom, or an urge to follow past routines.
  • Picking. If an elderly relative picks at the air in front of them, or makes repetitive movements like opening and closing containers or switching the TV on and off, it could be a dementia symptom.
  • Sleep problems. Insomnia and sundown syndrome are common problems in people with dementia. Your parent may have problems falling asleep, or they may wake up several times throughout the night. They may also feel more restless at the end of the day—this is called sundowning. Doctors believe sundowning can be triggered by exhaustion, excitement, or changes in the biological clocks of people with dementia. Managing sleep is an important aspect of taking care of elderly parents with dementia.
  • Eating problems or nutrient deficiencies. Your parent may forget to eat or drink or develop a nutrient absorption problem. Senior dehydration or sudden weight loss can be serious. Medications to treat dementia symptoms can also affect your loved one’s appetite or interfere with food taste. Ensuring your loved one with dementia gets adequate fluids and nutrition can be a challenge.
  • Incontinence. As dementia progresses, your loved one may lose bladder and bowel control. Changes in environment may also lead to accidents because someone with dementia may not be able to find the bathroom or get there in time.

If, after cataloging their symptoms, you suspect your loved one has dementia, there are a few proactive steps you can take. Read on for tips on tracking symptoms and seeking support from medical professionals.

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What to do if you suspect someone has dementia

If you suspect that your loved one has dementia, document and share dementia behaviors with a doctor. Keep a record of the symptoms, and track signs of dementia using your phone or a journal. It’s important to share specific examples with a doctor.

If you’re worried about upsetting a loved one, submit your observations to their physician privately in writing. Keep in mind that HIPAA authorization is not needed for you to share concerns with a parent’s health care professional.

Include details about:

  • When you first noticed dementia behavior
  • Specific dementia symptoms your parents show
  • How often they struggle and when it happens
  • Changes in their normal routine or behavior
  • History of depression or bipolar disorder

Should you tell someone they have dementia?

In most cases, you should tell your loved one they have dementia as it’s in their best interest to know what’s going on with their health. Chances are, they’ll already realize something’s wrong. You can have the discussion with them yourself, but it’s generally best to have a physician explain their diagnosis, according to Harvard Health.[01] They’ll be able to provide professional answers to any questions and may offer further guidance on how to manage the condition.

It’s important to remember that if your loved one receives a dementia diagnosis, they do have the right not to know about it if that’s their clear preference. However, 92% of people with Alzheimer’s have indicated they’d like to know the honest truth, according to the Western Journal of Medicine. And, 98% of family caregivers and 84% of dementia patients even found it helpful to share and discuss the dementia diagnosis together.[02]

How to get help for your parents’ dementia symptoms

It’s important to find professional help after noticing early symptoms of dementia.

  • Find the right doctor. Doctors who specialize in dementia will ask about problems related to common dementia behaviors. You should look for a physician whose specialty is geriatrics, neurology, or clinical psychiatry, according to the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation.
  • Communicate observations in detail. The more details you can share regarding warning signs of dementia, the easier it can be for a doctor to determine the cause and tests needed for a diagnosis. The doctor can also develop more effective treatment options for dementia symptoms based on the specificity of the data collected.
  • Prepare for a diagnosis. A dementia diagnosis is determined through a series of steps. There are many different possible tests to rule out other health conditions like vitamin B12 deficiency, brain tumors, thyroid conditions, urinary tract infections, and more, as some of these conditions also may cause dementia symptoms. A dementia evaluation can include:
    • Reviewing a person’s medical history
    • Physical or mental exam
    • Lab tests
    • Brain imaging
  • Stay proactive. Continue to observe and take notes to help you and medical professionals determine the best care and treatment options for your mom or dad.
  • Plan for the future. For more resources and information on caring for a loved one with dementia, download A Place for Mom’s Dementia Care Guide, or reach out to a local Senior Living Advisor. In addition to memory care resources, a Senior Living Advisor can help you find in-home care support and other options.


  1. Marzanski, M. (2000, November). On telling the truth to patients with dementia. Western Journal of Medicine.

  2. Marshall, G., & LeWine, H. E. (2022, February 2). What should you tell someone who has Alzheimer’s disease? Harvard Health.

Meet the Author
Merritt Whitley, senior living writer and editor

Merritt Whitley writes and edits content for A Place for Mom, specializing in senior health, memory care, and lifestyle articles. With eight years of experience writing for senior audiences, Merritt has managed multiple print publications, social media channels, and blogs. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University.

Edited by

Jordan Kimbrell

Reviewed by

Erin Martinez, Ph.D.

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