How often do you ask yourself this question? Dad forgets where he put his glasses and they are on the night table where he has kept them for the past 50 years. Mom refuses all your offers to take her out to the park and prefers to sit in front of the television, even though she has always loved being outdoors. Your parents call you in the middle of night, convinced it’s mid-day, or forget an important birthday.
Dementia and depression are both serious mental disorders but being a bit forgetful or a little less energetic are normal aspects of aging. Physical problems are easier to spot and diagnose. If Mom is in pain, there’s clearly something wrong. If Dad suddenly has trouble getting out of his chair, he needs to be checked out. But mental health issues are notoriously under-diagnosed, especially when they appear in conjunction with physical problems.
May has been designated Mental Health Awareness Month. That’s because awareness is key to finding and fixing mental disorders. Just as you would take your parents to the physician for a check-up and tests for a physical issue, you should also be doing so if you spot a mental irregularity.
Lack of interest in activities that used to be enjoyable, irritability, sleep problems, fatigue, dramatic changes in appetite or weight and restlessness are all possible signs of depression. Physical manifestations of depression include unexplained chest pains and digestive issues such as nausea, indigestion, diarrhea or constipation.
Dementia usually starts small, so keep an eye out for the early signs. These include memory loss that disrupts normal life, difficulty in problem solving, inability to complete familiar tasks, frequent confusion of time or place, poor judgement, withdrawal from social activities and changes in mood and personality. Misplacing things and being unable to retrace their steps to figure out where they put them and having trouble carrying out conversations are also signs something is not right.
If you suspect your parents are experiencing any of these symptoms, ask your physician for a full work-up, to look for both physical and mental conditions. It may turn out to be normal symptoms of aging, but on the off-chance that it’s not, the earlier a problem is diagnosed the quicker it can be managed.