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A friend of mine recently told me about the woman who lived next door to him and it brought back painful memories and some questions with which I continue to struggle.

It seems that this woman, who lived alone, was discovered walking along a busy highway by her son who had fortuitously put a GPS device on his mother’s handbag.  This incident worked out ok, but the son decided that his mother needed to live closer to him so he purchased a condo for her within a few minutes of his home.  Unfortunately, although she was now closer to him, he was not able to supervise her constantly and she was once again discovered to have wandered off into potential danger.

In the end, Mom was admitted to a memory care unit where she will be under the watchful eyes of assigned staff and safe from dangers related to “memory issues.”

All of us who have been involved with any form of dementia wonder how the son could have misread the problem and we feel badly that he now has two pieces of real estate to deal with.  Yet, when did we become so wise???

The painful memory this incident brought back to me was when my father had stalked off from the campground where he was staying in a fit of rage and I was contacted to find him.  It was hot that Saturday morning as I raced up 141, crossed 400 and took a left turn onto a VERY busy two lane road. Neither side of the road had more than two feet of shoulder and I remember wondering which direction he had gone or if he had taken any turns off this road.  As I drove I could see my father marching toward me at a good pace and I passed him before I could find a place to dump my truck. I remember running in Atlanta summer heat and humidity desperately trying to reach my father before anything bad happened.

I was blessed that a Good Samaratin saw me running and he managed to pull into a driveway to block my father from advancing too much further.  By the time I reached my father he was having a very nice conversation about the weather with the man who helped us and all seemed normal.  When we all got back to the campground I remember lecturing my father that he could not continue to storm off in this manner.

And yet, I could not see the signs any more than my friend’s neighbor’s son could.  Ever since I could remember, my father had a history of temper tantrums followed by him storming off. This appeared to be just another one of those incidents and, in retrospect, there had been many more of these incidents in my father’s later years that I could not differentiate from his behavior as I was growing up.

So, how do we recognize when it is time to address odd behavior, memory loss and other signs of aging?  Many of us question that, since some of us have never been able to remember anything, when will we know that dementia has set in?  At what point did my father’s “temper tantrums” cross into dementia rages?

Aging is a process and as we experience it there are generally no signs from the heavens telling us we have reached a critical stage.  Many of us are accused of being in denial, and that may be true in some cases or some respects.  Yet, when change is gradual it can be very difficult to determine where our loved one is on the spectrum from “normal” to “danger.”

The one suggestion I have for anyone living through these questions is to find a physician who specializes in the issues of aging.  When we finally got my father to a gerontologist the dementia diagnosis was quick and clear and we were able to get on with the care that was needed.  We were fortunate that there were no bad consequences from my father’s behavior, but we were spared by pure luck.

We at CDA Inc. have not only lived through difficult stages with our own elderly parents, but we have also counseled many other families through similar situations. Please let us know if we can be of help preparing you for what may happen, or if we can help you as you navigate you and your loved ones’ transition from independence to some level of care now.