The other day, I had a long talk with a friend about her mom. My friend lives on the East Coast. Her mother lives in the Midwest. Mom is in an independent living apartment and recently has been falling and suffering memory lapses. The other day, mom got lost trying to drive home from her regular bridge game.  

My friend realizes it is time for her mother to get more help and they have discussed the possibility of her moving closer to her daughter. But, my friend asked, which care facility would be best?

I suggested she was putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Before we could know what care setting was appropriate, we needed to know a lot more about this memory loss. Was it early Alzheimer’s? Was it stroke-related? Was it a polypharmacy issue? After all, mom is taking lots of drugs, including meds for depression, a thyroid problem, and a range of other complaints. It is not uncommon for combinations of medications to create symptoms that look very much like dementia.

Mom has a psychiatrist who treats her depression, but this doctor has little experience with elderly patients and does not seem very knowledgable about her other drugs. I suggested she see a geriatric psychiatrist–if she can find one. Once my friend learns more about the cause of her mom’s confusion, she should be much better prepared to help find an appropriate care setting.

This story was on my mind as I read an article about economic importance of early diagnosis of dementia. A new study by the Department of Veterans Affairs reports that early dementia screening can reduce first year health costs by 13 percent. More importantly, recognizing Alzheimer’s or other dementias can signal health providers to watch for related problems before they reach a crisis stage. For instance, checking to be sure a dementia patient is taking her meds properly could prevent a trip to the emergency room.  

The VA screening was remarkably easy. The study merely added a simple three-item memory test to its regular check-ups for patients over 70. Patients who failed the test were then given a more thorough diagnostic screening.