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My loved one’s behavior has changed – what to do next

If you see signs of behavioral change, bring your loved one to his or her doctor

By Bridget Suire

As our loved ones age, we will witness many changes. Some of these are expected for people of a certain age, and some are surprising. Some may be subtle and occur over time; others come on very quickly.

The changes that can be most concerning are those dealing with mental health. Some are minor, something as simple as remembering a name, losing track of keys or missing a doctor’s appointment. Our senior loved ones may remember a word, but not the meaning. (They might recognize the word “key,” for example, but they have forgotten what a “key” does.) It could be that their memory is delayed and they need a little more time to remember. They may repeat a story or information over and over. Perhaps they cry more easily watching a movie or a commercial.

Other changes can be more severe. Memory may become more difficult. They may not remember their name, the day of the week or even the year. They may stop attending to their hygiene and regularly taking a shower, combing their hair or brushing their teeth. Maybe they may start to hear or see things that are not there or start to think about or take actions to hurt themselves or others.

When these behaviors occur, they can be frightening. We sometimes don’t know what to do, so we don’t do anything — but these behaviors warrant action.

HAVE A PLAN

If you see worrying signs of behavioral change, bring your loved one to his or her primary care doctor. Have the doctor check for a medical reason behind the behavior, such as urinary tract infection, hypothyroid or hyperthyroid conditions, Parkinson’s disease or medication interactions. The primary care physician also would need to rule out alcohol or drug abuse, as such substances could be causing or contributing to these behaviors.

Once medical reasons are eliminated, ask the primary care physician to refer the senior to a psychiatrist. If their conduct is such that something must be done right away (if they are exhibiting aggressive behavior or they are disoriented, for example), a trip to a hospital emergency department may be in order. The senior also may be referred to a behavioral health hospital for an inpatient stay, either by a primary care physician or an ER provider.

Be sure to talk to your loved ones now about what they want in the future. Do they want to be able to stay at home with a personal caregiver? Do they want to live with one of their children or relatives? Do they want to live in an assisted living facility? Do they want to give someone power of attorney and have a contract signed in the event they are no longer able to make decisions for themselves?

It is helpful to put the plan in writing and review it from time to time because sometimes loved ones change their minds.

DON’T FORGET ME TIME

Remember, too, to take time for yourself. The care that you give to your loved one is only as good as the care you give to yourself. We are used to putting others before ourselves, but you can’t give what you don’t have.

Women are like Mother Earth’s soup kitchens. We keep dishing out soup until the pot is bone dry. You have to take time for yourselves to replenish the pot. Otherwise, we are emptying our pots and have nothing left to give.


Bridget Suire is a licensed social worker and director of behavioral health at Garden Park Medical Center. For information about Seasons Senior Behavioral Health Unit, contact

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