Dementia vs. Normal Aging: Tips on When to Consider Memory Care

A senior woman considers memory care while gardening

It can be overwhelming, concerning, and even frightening to notice signs of forgetfulness in your senior loved one. Are these symptoms of normal aging or dementia? 

There are several key symptoms to look for and questions to ask yourself as you evaluate the situation. And because everyone is unique, each person can exhibit different signs and symptoms of dementia, so it’s also essential to schedule a visit with your loved one’s physician to bring up these concerns.


As you consider your next steps, we’ve compiled a list of questions to guide your observations and help you know when to consider memory care for your loved one.

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Is the confusion sudden?

Alzheimer’s disease or dementia are progressive conditions. This means that your loved one will not go to bed completely fine and wake up suddenly confused. Sudden (or acute) confusion can indicate more serious medical conditions, like a stroke or an infection. 

Dementia presents a progressive pattern, which means your loved one will slowly and steadily exhibit increased forgetfulness or confusion. Consistent confusion, whether sudden or gradual, is not a normal sign of aging and likely points to a medical condition.

Does their forgetfulness affect daily life?

Perhaps one of the biggest indicators of dementia is that it causes a marked disruption to daily life. For many of us, at all ages, it’s common to have periods of forgetfulness. For example, you’ve probably walked into a room and couldn’t remember why you came there in the first place, or you have likely misplaced your keys every once in a while. 

For those living with dementia, that forgetfulness is not a one-off situation. It happens throughout the day and affects relationships, chores, and routines. For example, has your loved one accidentally left the stove on? Are they forgetting to take daily medications? When forgetfulness begins to affect daily life, it may be time to talk with your loved one’s physician.


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Can your loved one handle complex tasks?

Complex tasks are tasks that typically require more than one step and a level of consistent concentration. Managing a household budget, including paying bills on time, is a common complex task. It’s normal to forget to pay a bill once, but losing the ability to manage a budget may indicate there are more serious memory-related issues present.

Complex tasks, like managing a budget, can become very frustrating and overwhelming for those in the early stages of dementia. Those same tasks become impossible in the middle stages of dementia. Even if your loved one can maintain their budget, watch their mood around those tasks. If they seem overwhelmed or flustered by the process, it could indicate they are beginning to show early signs of dementia.

Can they keep up with conversations?

Have you ever struggled to find a specific word while you are in the middle of a conversation? That is normal and happens to the best of us. For those living with dementia, it can become increasingly difficult to keep up with daily conversations. 

This can look like regular trouble finding words, as well as a lack of participation at all as others have the conversation around them. Pay close attention to your loved one during conversations to see if they are able to participate appropriately.

However, keep in mind any hearing challenges your loved one may have. Hearing challenges can make your loved one experience difficulties keeping up with conversations. Fortunately, that problem can be solved by changing the batteries in a hearing aid, switching the seating arrangement, or exploring hearing aids if your loved one doesn’t already have them.

Are they anxious?

Anxiety often goes hand-in-hand with dementia during all stages of the disease. If your loved one does not have a history of anxiety but is suddenly showing signs, it could be an indicator of dementia. Each person is unique, so anxiety can show up in different ways, but common signs may include:

  • Asking repetitive questions
  • Wringing hands
  • Wandering (walking without purpose)
  • Sifting, sorting, or rearranging
  • Voicing concern for specific situations that have not happened yet

Have you noticed personality changes?

Similar to anxiety, personality changes are a hallmark of the early and middle stages of dementia. Personality changes aren’t a normal sign of aging. They’re typically more noticeable if your loved one is in a new situation or in an overly stimulating environment, like the grocery store or a loud restaurant. 

You might notice your loved one is suddenly grouchy all the time or that they are more likely to be confrontational to a store worker. You might also notice that your loved one is suspicious, angry, or fearful. If those personality traits are new, it could indicate dementia, because these behaviors are not a part of normal aging.

Is your loved one maintaining their social calendar?

If your loved one is missing out on their regular breakfast date with their friends because they no longer drive, that is normal. However, if your loved one is missing out on their regular breakfast date with their friends as well as their book club, religious fellowship groups, and other regular dates on their social calendar, this could be a sign of dementia.

Those in the early stages of dementia are more likely to self-isolate and withdraw from their friends and family. This isolation happens for a variety of reasons, including feeling self-conscious about their forgetfulness. 

Unfortunately, loneliness can quickly lead to other serious health challenges including cognitive decline and anxiety. If you notice a pattern of self-isolation and withdrawal from family and friends, it could be time to chat with your loved one about the issue, and with your loved one’s physician.

What comes next?

The good news is that thanks to early detection methods, you and your loved one can get a diagnosis earlier than was possible even just five years ago. Although it can seem scary to get a dementia diagnosis, an early diagnosis allows you and your loved one to plan for the future together so that they have autonomy. Your loved one can also begin to get the support they need to thrive and learn new coping techniques, to make life feel less stressful or overwhelming.

Memory care communities are an excellent option for those with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, and it’s never too early to begin researching options near you. In fact, moving to a senior living community that specializes in memory care in the early stages of the disease can offer your loved one the opportunity to acclimate to their new residence and get settled in, decreasing the risk of transition stress.

Memory care communities offer programs designed to promote healthy socialization, exercise, and intellectual stimulation. Staff members are accustomed to providing support for residents with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, and their goal is to create a comfortable and engaging environment while offering personalized assistance based on the preferences or history of each individual. This extra attention to detail results in more than just safety; residents in a high-quality memory care community are comfortable, healthy, and happy.

Senior living communities that specialize in memory care also offer enhanced security to prevent your loved one from wandering too far from home. They also create a comforting routine for residents to prevent stress and provide a sense of security and safety. 

Get real-life answers about memory care community options.

Learn more about memory care community services and pricing with our Insider’s Guide to Memory Care Pricing. Compare the costs of your loved one staying in their current residence to the cost of a senior living community, learn which factors go into the monthly and yearly price, and more.

The Insider's Guide to Understanding Memory Care Pricing

*Originally published July 2021. Updated August 2023.

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