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Midlife Memory or Dementia?

How to Tell if It’s Midlife or Dementia

How to tell if it's normal memory loss over fifty or from being near menopause, or if it's dementia. Advice from a therapist.

Midlife memory loss over fifty?

We finished remodeling about two months ago. It took 50 weeks.

50 long weeks.

I got to know our contractor very well. He’d show up at 8:00 am, and watch me wolf down a yogurt on my way out the door, as we tried to decide on everything from switch plates to ceiling fans. One morning, I called out as I departed,”Bye, honey!” My husband answered. “Bye.” And then I heard another voice, sincere and solicitous. “Bye.”


He’s been our contractor for years, and has become a friend.

Last week, I got to the office, and my smoke detector was beeping. The relentless screeching greeted me, but of course, I didn’t remember where they all were. I knew there was one in the hall. So I eyeballed it. Nothing seemed wrong. I got a ladder and risked what seemed two humongous steps, and yanked the cover off with a jerk. All I could see were wires. Wires? I didn’t understand… I thought I’d see a battery. I was irritated. I was supposed to see patients in two hours. I couldn’t have that incessant blaring going on.

So who did I call but said contractor. After a few minutes of discussion, he advised, “Well take a picture of it, and maybe I can figure it out.” He knew by this time that too much technology was difficult for me, and I have the patience of a gnat with these kinds of things.

What I heard when I texted the picture almost broke my phone. Laughter. Guffawing, side-splitting laughter.

“Margaret… (he gasped for air)… oh my God, that’s the doorbell.”

I looked up. The smoke detector was above me, in the ceiling. A little red light was beaming at me.

It was maybe one foot away from the doorbell thingie.

My only response?

“Well, you can now see that when God was passing out common sense, I wasn’t standing in line.”

It isn’t the first time. I’ve hit the garage door when it was closed because I was in a hurry and thought it was dark outside. Twice. I’ve backed into dumpsters parked in our driveway, and taken out a neighbor’s mailbox. I’ve handed my toddler son’s cup of puke to a poor woman who happened, unluckily, to be outside in her front yard. I’ve been in the middle of cooking a holiday meal and realized I didn’t read through the recipe, and I need goose pate. Or tahini paste. Or dried chipotles found only in Guatemala.

I go too fast. I don’t think through things. Common sense often eludes me.

My own mother used to “write” T-H-I-N-K on my forehead.

I hated that.

The odd thing is that I’m now a therapist. I think all the time. Hopefully, I slow down and actually listen.

All of this nonsense, however, caused me to wonder about actual dementia. It must be extremely frightening to have things begin to not make sense. To start forgetting the order of things performed hundreds of times. What if this event wasn’t the continuation of a pattern of going too fast, but the beginning of me losing my mind? Or losing my understanding?

Marie Marley writes in the Huffington Post about the embarrassment of not remembering, quoting the authors of a telling book about Alzheimers. She asks the reader to remember how it felt, when you were in school, to be called on by a teacher, and not know the answer.

“How did we feel?” the authors ask. “We remember the feeling of our collar tightening, voice faltering, palms sweating, and face blushing.” Then they call to our attention that, “The person with Alzheimer’s disease is in a giant classroom every day, one in which he or she never has the exact answer.”

No telling what kind of avoidance we’d put up. Or where we’d put the anger and confusion we’d feel. Depression would easily develop. And how do you grieve, when you may be in abject denial about what’s happening?

I remember a woman who was in a outpatient therapy group I ran years ago. She was quite engaging, a very powerful presence. She’d been hit with a depressive episode, however, and was recovering. Her husband had severe Alzheimer’s and had become, at times, violent. So he was in a nursing home. She’d go to see him twice a day. Most of those visits, he would rage and scream at her.

I, in my 39 year-old wisdom, was working with her, trying to talk about what options might be available to her to handle those very difficult visits. She looked at me, somewhat ferociously, and said, “Don’t you dare tell me not to go. I loved the man that man used to be. And he loved me.”

You may be caring for someone with dementia, trying to handle the difficulty of that task, as well as connecting with your own grief. I loved Cathy Sikorski’s book on doing just that, Showering With Nana: Confessions of a Serial (Killer) Caregiver. It’s honestly and humorously told, and offers a view of what it must be like to have the experience of losing your memory.

Sadly, there’s not a lot of help for the person with the disease.

Perhaps we can all start with empathy. And information.

Click here for “Marriage Is Not For Chickens,” the new gift book by Dr. Margaret! It’s perfect for engagements, anniversaries, weddings, or for the person you love!

You can hear more about relationships and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford.

Looking for more information about memory loss and dementia? Read Forgotten Conversation, or Is It Something More?  , Delaying the Onset of Alzheimer’s and Dementia, and When To Worry About Memory Loss.

Margaret Rutherford

Dr. Margaret Rutherford is a clinical psychologist, who has practiced for over twenty years in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Since 2012, her writing has been found on her own website, as she writes about mental health, with a special focus on Perfectly Hidden Depression, midlife and relationship issues. She's the current mental health columnist for Midlife Boulevard, writes an advice column on Vibrant Nation, is a weekly columnist for The Good Men Project, and hosts a regular FB Live video session on depression for The Mighty. Her work and expertise can also be found on The Huffington Post, Sixty and Me, Better After 50, Reader's Digest, Prevention, Psychology Today, and The Cheat Sheet. Dr. Margaret recently has launched a new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford, where you can listen to her direct and down-to-earth advice.

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