A friend of mine recently confessed that she had been driving down a familiar road and suddenly didn’t know where she was. It only lasted a second, but she was clearly unsettled by the experience. 

I think most of us have had something like this happen: You forget where you parked your car or can’t remember a co-worker’s name. These kind of unexpected moments of forgetfulness and disorientation seem to get more common as we age, and it can be difficult to talk about.

A reader asks: “My mom seems to repeats stories and doesn’t follow conversations as well as she used to. I’m not sure if I should be concerned. Is this a normal part of aging? Should I broach the subject with her or just let it go?”

The answer is that it may be normal. As more studies are done about the developmental stages of the elderly, researchers have found key elements that may offer insight into what is happening. 

 

Underlying causes

First, like any other part of life, the elderly have developmental “tasks.” In middle age, it is all about career and family, but in the later years, the tasks revolve around control and legacy. 

It is possible that your mother wants to ensure that you know her story. Sometimes, when we are as busy as we are in midlife, it is difficult to slow down and really listen. If you only visit occasionally, your mother may be concerned about looking back on her experiences and imparting lessons learned. 

This can sometimes seem repetitive, as though she is not tracking properly, so you may want to take some time to consider her behavior and your response to it. If her behavior still seems unusual, try to engage her in conversation. There may be an underlying emotional need she is trying to meet. Ask some open-ended questions about her stories and see how she responds.

It is also possible that your mother is experiencing the early stages of dementia. In a previous column, I talked about dementia, which is estimated to affect about 1 percent of the population younger than 65 years of age and 30 to 50 percent of those age 85 and older.

 

Dementia

One of the reasons dementia is such a feared diagnosis is that it signals an impending loss of independence and control. Many older adults dread the thought of becoming a burden on their families; it can make them anxious, angry, frustrated and resentful when that possibility is suggested. 

The good news is that not all dementias are incurable. In older adults, dementia is often caused by an underlying illness or infection. In such cases, once the disease is treated, the dementia reverses itself. 

Reversible dementia can also be caused by some nutritional deficiencies and reactions to medications. Your mother’s first stop should be her health-care provider. 

Irreversible dementia can be caused by conditions like Alzheimer’s, vascular disease, Parkinson’s and others. Although the disease mechanisms are different, the effects are quite similar: loss of mental acuity and the ability to perform the daily tasks of independent living. In essence, the elder person loses the control they so desperately want to preserve. 

Assessment of unusual behavior by a qualified physician is important; it will rule out illness and may spot problem areas early by testing for specific and measurable factors such as memory, focus, concentration and understanding. 

 

Talking it out

Many families find it difficult to talk directly about the specifics of aging, but I hope you will try. If your mother has noticed that she is “slipping,” she may be worried about it. In that case, she may be relieved to talk about it with someone she trusts. 

Of course, not everyone will feel that way. Pointing out your concern to her may be met with denial and possibly a great deal of emotion. She may insist that there is nothing wrong and that she is just tired, stressed or busy. 

As you try to help her, she may perceive your help as an attempt to exert control over her; you may feel that she is being intentionally difficult. She may become agitated or angry. 

Resist the temptation to argue. You will need to use patience, empathy and understanding with her. You might reassure her that she is probably fine, but ask her to help you stop worrying by going to the doctor. Let her know that you want her to be OK. Avoid patronizing her or treating her like a child.

Each person will respond to age-related changes differently. It is my hope that, whatever your experience with your mother, you will be able to deepen your bond and cherish the time you have together.