Question: My mother is showing beginning signs of dementia. The problem is my dad is being treated for cancer and neither my sister nor I live in the same town as my parents. My dad has asked us to try and get my mom in for evaluation with a new doctor but my mom refuses to cooperate. How do you approach an issue with a parent that is showing signs of mental decline?
Dr. Amy: This sounds like a stressful situation all around. I’m sure your dad’s brush with cancer has been upsetting. If your mom is his primary caregiver and is showing signs of cognitive impairment, that’s another emotional shock for everyone—and one that is going to require some planning and adjustments.
Are you or your sister able to go home for a long weekend? That way, you can see firsthand how your mom is doing—over a few days—and talk face to face. You could start by sharing what you have observed and asking what she thinks is going on. Offer specific observations, delivered calmly and in a loving tone. If you mom agrees that there is a problem, you can then ask her what she thinks needs to be done. If she doesn't bring up the idea of going for a thorough assessment, you can speak to the advantages of being prepared and taking action early. This is in her best interests and your father’s. You might reassure her and say that it might be nothing, but better to be safe and know for sure.
If this doesn't work, try speaking directly about your own feelings. I find that, very often, people will do something they don’t want to do out of love for the person making the request.
I encourage you to read The 40/70 Rule, published by Home Instead Senior Care. This wonderful resource contains scenarios and responses based on real-life experiences. Communication expert and author Jake Harwood, Ph.D., from the University of Arizona helped develop the content, and I think you may find it useful.
Don’t give up. Try a variety of approaches with your mom. It sounds like she needs to be assessed, both for her sake and for your dad’s. Good luck!