Spending time with a loved one at Christmas is often the first opportunity family members have to notice symptoms of memory loss. Here’s what to do if you’re worried about someone’s memory.

It may have been a few months since you spent time with family members, but when Christmas comes round, you often find you’re living in each other’s pockets for days (especially if you get stuck indoors with cold, wintry weather and a box of Roses).

So it’s no surprise that it’s often during and after the Christmas break that you may notice changes in a loved one’s memory. Where before they may have seemed quite lucid and able to cope with everyday tasks, suddenly you’re noticing that they’ve deteriorated.

Perhaps when you came to pick up a grandparent or elderly aunt, you noticed their normally immaculate house was very untidy, or the fridge had rotting food in it. Or when you came to pick up your parent they seemed confused about why you were there or they failed to recognise other family members such as grandchildren.

And over the Christmas break, you may find that your normally sharp and ‘with it’ relative seems confused, unsure, withdrawn or even a little depressed, raising concerns that all may not be what it seems.

The next steps

If you are worried that your loved one may be showing early signs of memory loss or not coping, there are steps you can take.

1. Talk to them

One of the first things you may want to do is actually have a word with them. While it’s not the easiest of topics to bring up, the sooner you do it, the more chance there is of catching the condition early.

- Pick the right time and place
Make sure you are both in comfortable, familiar surroundings – maybe whilst having a cup of tea in the kitchen or during a walk in the park. Make sure neither of you are feeling stressed, tearful or irritable. It’s probably best to wait until there’s some peace and quiet – disturbances from noisy grandchildren or other family members won’t be helpful.

- Be open
Start with a very general question to get the conversation going. For example, ‘you don't seem yourself lately. How are you feeling? Is anything worrying you?’

- Listen carefully
They might decide to open up straight away. If so, let them talk without interrupting or contradicting. Then respond positively and kindly. For example, ‘I'm really pleased we're talking about this, because it sounds as if it’s been bothering you for quite a while. Why don’t we both go and see the doctor. She might be able to help or just put your mind at ease.’

2. Take them to the doctor

If they agree that they’re not quite themselves, or admit that they too are worried about their memory, the next step is to organise a visit to their doctor to have them assessed. If the person is a close family member – for example your parent or spouse – you will probably want to help organise the appointment and go along with them.

However, if it’s a relative or close friend, it’s worth checking if there is someone else who should be involved. You don’t want to be stepping on anyone’s toes. They may have noticed that their loved one isn’t quite right, but also be unwilling to take it any further. A supportive discussion could be what’s needed to help convince them that they need to be assessed.

Before the appointment…

Keep track of any incidents that may help to demonstrate to the GP that there are memory problems or any other issues – for example, changes in behaviour or mood.

On the day of the appointment…
Bring…
- A list of any medications they’re taking.
- Details of any health conditions them may suffer from now (or in the past).
- The list of examples where there’s been an issue with memory.
- A list of any questions you have.

What to expect…
First off, the doctor will ask about the symptoms they’ve been having. This includes how and when they first started and how they’re affecting their life.

The doctor should also check family health history and review any medications they’re currently taking. The doctor will carry out a physical examination to check general health and to find out if they may have suffered a stroke, or if Parkinson’s disease is suspected, both of which can cause memory loss. The doctor may take blood and urine samples to check for other health conditions that may be causing the memory loss symptoms.

Finally, the GP will assess your loved one’s cognitive abilities through a range of questions and tests. Try to keep your loved one calm about these tests. The doctor is not trying to catch them out – they’re just keen to get a clear idea of how the brain is working.

3. Provide support

If speaking to your relative has proved to be a positive step and they’re open to getting some help or going to the doctor, then you need to make sure either you or other friends and family are there to provide support. They may need help telling friends and family about their diagnosis or working out key actions to take post-diagnosis such as setting up Power of Attorney or writing or updating their Will.

Of course, there is a chance that your loved one refuses to accept that there are any problems. This is quite understandable – they might be frightened or confused. If this is the case, you’ve got two options.

- Give in gracefully, change the subject and try bringing up the topic of their memory loss another time.

- Consider asking someone else to talk to them instead. For example, if it's a parent you're worried about, they might feel more able to confide in a close friend or relative their own age.

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