Aunt’s memory issues put her family at a crossroads

Published 10:48 am Friday, August 14, 2020

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DEAR ABBY: I’m part of a large, close-knit family. My mother and her sisters have condominiums in the same complex. One dear aunt is having a great deal of trouble with her memory and word retrieval. She recently stopped recognizing her daughter and no longer calls any of us by name.
The problem is, some of this aunt’s children are in denial. They refuse to believe there’s anything wrong with their mom and insist that she is showing signs of normal aging. They have stated this so strongly that the other siblings are afraid to raise the issue of an assessment for fear of angering them further. It is a very difficult family dynamic.
Normally, we wouldn’t comment on or intervene in such a private matter. However, seeing my aunt deprived of a medical diagnosis and associated care that might alleviate her suffering, it is very hard to stay quiet. It may or may not be possible to reduce her symptoms, but it seems like it is elder abuse to rob her of the chance to try. Please advise. — CONCERNED FOR AUNTIE
DEAR CONCERNED: Close family members are typically the first to notice memory issues or cognitive problems, but often they are hesitant to say something even when they know something is wrong. A recent Alzheimer’s Association survey found that nearly 3 out of 4 Americans say talking to a close family member about memory loss, thinking problems or other signs of cognitive decline would be challenging.
Initiating these challenging conversations is important. Discussion can enable early diagnosis, which has important benefits, including better disease management, more time for critical care planning and providing diagnosed individuals a voice in their future care. It also provides an opportunity to address concerns before a crisis situation arises.
While our cognitive abilities decrease with age, your aunt’s inability to recognize her own daughter is NOT a sign of normal aging. Helping relatives understand the seriousness of the situation as well as the important health benefits of receiving a proper diagnosis may convince them. If your aunt’s children find it too difficult to have the conversation, another close relative, a friend perhaps, or her doctor can take the lead.
To encourage families to have these conversations, the Alzheimer’s Association has partnered with the Ad Council in creating “Our Stories” ( It features real stories of people who noticed changes in their loved ones and took the difficult step of having a conversation. It also offers customizable conversation starters, a list of early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s, benefits of early diagnosis and a downloadable discussion help guide. In addition, the Alzheimer’s Association’s free 24/7 Helpline (800-272-3900) is available for families addressing these important conversations and other caregiving concerns.
Dear Abby is written by Abigail Van Buren, also known as Jeanne Phillips, and was founded by her mother, Pauline Phillips. Contact Dear Abby at or P.O. Box 69440, Los Angeles, CA 90069.
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