How Do You Know If It's Alzheimer's?


Would you recognize people with Alzheimer's if you saw them? In the early stages, maybe not. We may hide emerging changes from our loved ones - and even ourselves, not wanting to admit "we're getting old". We may function fine in some areas such as work, but not others which are not as noticeable. We may change jobs to one where we can function better - well beneath our former skill level. We call it "de-stressing", "kickin' back", or needing "a change of scenery". And, though all these reasons may be exactly what they appear to be, they may not.

So, what is your role as a casual observer or family member? Does the person ever put him or herself in danger (like turning on the stove and forgetting that its on)? Has his or her personality changed? There are a number of clues to help you decide if intervention is needed - or at least a thorough evaluation.

The National Alzheimer's Association has identified a list of ten possible indicators of dementia. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer's.

  1. Memory loss that disrupts everyday life
  2. Difficulty performing familiar tasks
  3. Problems with language
  4. Disorientation to time and place
  5. Poor or decreased judgment
  6. Problems with abstract thinking
  7. Misplacing things
  8. Changes in mood or behavior
  9. Changes in personality
  10. Loss of initiative

To further clarify this list, they add:

  • Memory Loss
    Forgetting recently learned information is one of the most common early signs of dementia. A person begins to forget more often and is unable to recall the information later.
    What’s normal?
    Forgetting names or appointments occasionally
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks
    People with dementia often find it hard to plan or complete everyday tasks. Individuals may lose track of the steps to prepare a meal, place a telephone call or play a game.
    What’s normal?
    Occasionally forgetting why you came into a room or what you planned to say
  • Problems with language
    People with Alzheimer’s disease often forget simple words or substitute unusual words, making their speech or writing hard to understand. They may be unable to find the toothbrush, for example, and instead ask for “that thing for my mouth.”
    What’s normal?
    Sometimes having trouble finding the right word
  • Disorientation to time and place
    People with Alzheimer’s disease can become lost in their own neighborhoods, forget where they are and how they got there, and not know how to get back home.
    What’s normal?
    Forgetting the day of the week or where you were going
  • Poor or decreased judgment
    Those with Alzheimer’s may dress inappropriately, wearing several layers on a warm day or little clothing in the cold. They may show poor judgment about money, like giving away large sums to telemarketers.
    What’s normal?
    Making a questionable or debatable decision from time to time
  • Problems with abstract thinking
    Someone with Alzheimer’s disease may have unusual difficulty performing complex mental tasks, like forgetting what numbers are and how they should be used.
    What’s normal?
    Finding it challenging to balance a checkbook
  • Misplacing things
    A person with Alzheimer’s disease may put things in unusual places: an iron in the freezer or a wristwatch in the sugar bowl.
    What’s normal?
    Misplacing keys or a wallet temporarily
  • Changes in mood or behavior
    Someone with Alzheimer’s disease may show rapid mood swings – from calm to tears to anger – for no apparent reason.
    What’s normal?
    Occasionally feeling sad or moody
  • Changes in personality
    The personalities of people with dementia can change dramatically. They may become extremely confused, suspicious, fearful or dependent on a family member.
    What’s normal?
    People’s personalities do change somewhat with age
  • Loss of initiative
    A person with Alzheimer’s disease may become very passive, sitting in front of the TV for hours, sleeping more than usual or not wanting to do usual activities.
    What’s normal?
    Sometimes feeling weary of work or social obligations
Progressive Changes in Alzheimer's - a Detailed Description


A checklist of behaviors that may be indicators of a problem has been developed to help you. Use this checklist to identify signs of concern. It's a quick and easy way for you to evaluate what you are observing. It won't take long to complete. We've set it up so you can complete it online and then print it out with your responses. The checklist can then be taken to:

There is help available. You are not alone.


What happens after you have completed the checklist, identified a pattern of questionable behaviors, and want to get your family member to accompany you to one of the parties listed above? Just the thought of having such a conversation with a parent or spouse can be overwhelming to the point of paralysis. But, remember.... a person exhibiting such behaviors may not have Alzheimer's. There could be medication interactions. The behaviors could be indications of other medical problems that can be addressed with proper medical care. And, sometimes, people just don't feel good in general and aren't getting enough sleep and they won't admit it. They think it's just a part of getting old. In fact, you may be so adverse to the reaction that you think you will receive from a conversation about the behaviors that you convince yourself that everything is really OK. It's just been a few times... maybe Dad really hasn't had enough sleep and a sleeping pill would help... maybe I'm just over-reacting... Please, take a step back and consider the safety issues should your family member actually have a form of dementia - or even if he or she has another medical issue altogether. Would you leave him or her at risk because you are afraid of his or her reaction? Get help. Many families go through this. There are techniques and strategies to help you broach such difficult topics.

The way to handle these discussions is to approach them from a constructive and non-threatening way.

Depersonalize the Issues
Isn't it always easier to talk about the difficult issues when they relate to other people?

  • Bring up the subjects by talking about a friend - either real or invented.
  • Say you read about an issue or say you saw a television program on an issue and ask their opinion - hypothetically, if needed.
  • Use the checklist provided to start the talk. Say you are concerned about his or her health and want to help him or her to be safe.

Assistance by Someone Outside of the Family
Sometimes the issues are so emotionally charged for a family, or relationships are so strained, that the assistance of someone outside the family would have the most effective result.

  • Do you have a friend of the family that could broach the topic?
  • What about someone from your faith community?
  • There are professionals available to help initiate these discussions (see above).

The bottom line is that you can't do nothing. Even if your family member gets a clean bill of health from the family physician, you will put your mind a ease - at least for the short term. However, if you have observed questionable behaviors, it might then be prudent to have a professional geriatric consultation and/or evaluation.

Get help if you need it. If you question whether or not your interpretation of the checklist of observed behaviors might indicate Alzheimer's or another form of dementia, call the Alzheimer's Association Helpline or access any of the resources listed above.

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Need Help Anytime?



Calls are confidential. The phones are staffed by clinicians who can provide information about dementia, crisis assistance, caregiving and treatment options and elder abuse. This service is free and is available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.


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