When my mother was 79 years old, I had just finished my doctoral dissertation. She called me and congratulated me and said how proud she was of me. Then she told me that it was time for her to go to a nursing home. She said, “I know how busy you’ve been with your education, so I waited until now to tell you that I just can’t balance my checkbook anymore, and I can’t control my gambling. I’m getting old and a nursing home is what I need now”. I was sad to hear that my mom was declining, but at the same time I was glad to know that she would be safer with other people to watch over her in a long-term care facility. So I began the complex and time-consuming task of finding just the right place for my mom. I was blessed to find a wonderful place that took excellent, loving care of her. After she was there for about a month, she looked at me and said, “Spike (my childhood nic name), this feels like home.” I was so happy about that. She loved it there.
Just a few months after she arrived in the nursing home, she began to exhibit unusual behavior. Her alcoholism seemed to worsen, and she asked me to take her drinking every time I visited. She refused showers, and was having trouble feeding herself and making the smallest decisions. The staff assumed she had a urinary tract infection, which often causes dementia-like symptoms in older people. But that wasn’t it. I took her to the emergency room when she exhibited very child-like behavior. It did not take long for the ER staff to diagnose her with a brain tumor in her frontal lobe. She chose not to have it treated and she died peacefully a few weeks later in the nursing home at 80 years of age.
Now here is what concerns me about my mom’s story: She, her care providers, and even myself assumed that her initial difficulties with her checkbook and gambling were just a normal part of aging, especially for alcoholics. So we didn’t really follow up on her symptoms like we would if she were younger. So the brain tumor was missed early on. Now, I doubt that the outcome would have been different for Mom. But it would have been nice to know the diagnosis sooner, so she would have been more aware of what was going on, and make decisions with a clear mind. And her loved ones may have made different decisions too, about the quality and quantity of time we spent with her.
My point to this story is that when an older person exhibits unusual behavior, let’s not assume that it’s a normal part of aging. It might not be normal.