The Dangers of Undiagnosed Dementia

Many people understandably wonder if there is any point in seeking an official diagnosis for Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia when there is no cure and doctors are limited in how much they can help manage the symptoms. While this kind of thinking is practical in some ways, it can have terrible consequences for a person experiencing cognitive issues (and their family members). Even a general diagnosis can aid families in getting practical help for their loved ones and open up educational opportunities to help them through the difficult territory of dementia care. It can also ensure they are receiving appropriate medical care and help to prevent elder abuse.

I approached Dr. Elizabeth Landsverk, Adjunct Clinical Professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Medical Director at Silverado Senior Living in Belmont, CA, about the dangers of allowing cognitive changes go undiagnosed. Below, Dr. Landsverk shares a personal story along with some wise words of advice for all of us.

A Cautionary Tale

“My friend, Rhonda, went through quite an ordeal recently due to undetected mental decline in her mother, Sue. Sue lived in upstate Minnesota in a house that she had been in for 40 years, and Rhonda lived about 2,000 miles away in California. The only local family Sue had was a granddaughter, Jane.

“Sue had been doing well until a few years ago when she began forgetting to take her medications and go to appointments. Jane eventually moved in with Sue to help, and this arrangement seemed to go smoothly for a while. Rhonda had asked her mother to move to California to be with her, but each time Sue would refuse, saying she was fine and that Jane was helping her. This went on until last year when everything changed.

“Jane took her grandmother to Florida to sign a mortgage on a house for her. Sue’s cat was taken along on the trip and somehow got lost in Tennessee. Jane took Sue home to Minnesota and told her she’d drive back to Tennessee to ‘find her cat.’

“During this time, another friend of mine, Meg, who knew both Sue and Jane, visited Sue and was distraught by what she found. Meg called Rhonda and told her that her mother was dehydrated and confused and that Jane needed to fly back to Minnesota immediately. Meg brought Sue to her own home and we both ensured she was taken care of.

“It soon became obvious that Jane was never coming back. She had previously told Rhonda that Sue had no medical issues and took no medications, but a bag of prescriptions in Sue’s home told a very different story. Sue had been treated for emphysema, high blood pressure, and cholesterol, and she also took Ambien and some Tylenol PM for sleep. Sue seemed frail and anxious and could not tell me what had happened in the past month with Jane. She didn’t ask where Rhonda was or about the new home or even her missing cat.

“Several weeks later, Sue became increasingly short of breath due to a respiratory infection and ended up in the hospital. A chest x-ray showed that she had a tumor in her chest. We finally got Sue’s primary doctor onboard and I was able to see her medical records. It turns out that she had been diagnosed with lung cancer more than a year earlier! Sue declined quickly and died from within six months. By that time, most of her money was gone, as was ownership of her house.

“The other side of this story is that Jane was addicted to drugs and had asked her grandmother to sign over the title of the house to her. Jane was supposed to be taking care of Sue’s medical issues, but did not even bother to get Sue any cancer treatments. (Although Jane did buy a life insurance policy on her.)”  Excerpt from Agingcare.com