As I have written here in the past, common medical conditions can manifest quite differently in the elderly than they do among the general population. Whereas an ongoing headache and fever after a cold of flu would indicate a likely sinus infection, it is not safe to jump to similar conclusions when your elderly parent becomes similarly symptomatic.
In a parent who is already suffering from deficiencies in memory, it can be especially difficult to distinguish a new physical ailment from his or her continued mental degeneration.
In this type of instance, err on the side of caution and get Mom or Dad an appointment with a doctor who is experienced in geriatric medicine.
I was reminded of this when I got a call from a client whose mother had been in the early stages of dementia for a year and a half. Not surprisingly, the disease was less pronounced during those first few months after diagnosis. However, after the year mark, Mom’s behavior began to change and her short-term memory started to falter.
This seemed normal enough to family members—unfortunate, but to be expected.
That is, until Mom began to behave outrageously and completely out of her norm.
Her behavior was described to me as “petulant,” “childlike,” and “manipulative.” While she was in no way aggressive, her moods swung wildly. Sometimes her actions bordered on the bizarre.
In one such example, she packed and mailed off a large box of holiday gifts for the son (and his family), but she neglected to include her grandson in the enclosed card. Equally strange, the “gifts” she did send (to her son and his wife) included such oddities as an old, ragged towel, random cutlery from Mom and Dad’s kitchen drawer, as well as the older couple’s guestroom bedspread.
While this may almost sound amusing, it is not. Think about if you had been the recipient of this holiday gift from your own beloved mother?
What was going on?
Was a new medicine to blame? Had her disease robbed her of her mental faculties this quickly?
This adult son lived across the country from his elderly folks, and he felt helpless. His own father seemed emotionally beaten down from taking care of the ailing wife, and soon family members everywhere were offering opinions and taking sides.
It was a mess.
This is when my phone rang.
I strongly suggested that Mom be taken immediately to a physician knowledgeable in elder care and geriatrics so that she could be given a thorough once-over.
And guess what? She was suffering from a severe urinary tract infection. It had been raging within her body, reeking havoc, for months.
Mom has now been through three very long, strong rounds of antibiotics and I am told that she is much more clear-headed again. Overall, her behavior has leveled out to a more tolerable state.
This family is not out of the woods. We have scheduled an online, group session, during which I will be walking them though setting up a next-step action plan so as to hopefully ease the burden on Dad, while securing the safe care of Mom.
I can do the same for your family or the family of someone you may know.
All the best,
Rabbi Scott Saulson, Ph.D.