Is It Dementia or Normal Aging?

Have you noticed that your aging loved one is a bit more forgetful than a few years ago? For many family members, it can be concerning and even frightening to see an aging parent show signs of cognitive decline. However, how can you discern if the forgetfulness you are observing is dementia or simply a sign of normal aging? We have compiled a list of questions to ask yourself regarding your loved one’s forgetfulness, to help you determine if an immediate physician’s visit is in order.


It’s important to note, of course, that every senior is unique and can exhibit different signs or symptoms. These questions are general but can point you to potential red flags that you could bring up to your loved one’s physician during their next visit.

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Is the confusion sudden?

Alzheimer’s disease and most other types of age-related 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 matters, like a stroke or an infection. Dementia presents a progressive pattern, which means your loved one will slowly and steadily increase 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 have probably walked into a room and could not for the life of you 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? When forgetfulness begins to affect daily life, it is time to make that appointment with your loved one’s physician.


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Can your loved one handle complex tasks?

Another indicator that can point to dementia instead of normal aging is the inability to 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. While it is common and normal to forget to pay a bill once, it is not normal to lose the ability to manage a budget.

Complex tasks, like managing a budget, can become very frustrating and overwhelming for those in the early stages of dementia. Those same tasks become downright impossible as they move into the middle stages. This means that while your loved one may be able to maintain their budget tasks, watch their mood around those tasks. If they seem overwhelmed or flustered by the operation, it could indicate they are beginning to show early signs of dementia.

Can they keep up with the conversation?

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.

If your loved one has hearing challenges, keep this in mind as you are observing them during a conversation. Hearing loss can lead to the inability to keep up with conversations, as well. Fortunately, that problem can be solved by changing batteries in a hearing aid or switching the seating arrangement.

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 of anxiety, it could be an indicator of dementia.

Anxiety can look different on everyone, but common signs could be:

  • 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, and they are not normal signs of aging. Personality changes are 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, church fellowship groups, and other regular dates on their social calendar, this could be a sign of dementia.

Those living 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 of their forgetfulness.

Unfortunately, loneliness can quickly lead to other serious health challenges including an increase in 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’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 in the early and middle stages of the disease, and it’s never too early to begin researching options near you. In fact, moving to a senior living community in the early stages of the disease can offer your loved one the opportunity to acclimate to their new home and get settled in, decreasing the risk of transition stress.

Memory care communities also offer programs designed to slow the progression of cognitive decline through healthy socialization, exercise, and intellectual stimulation. Specially trained staff members are there to create a comfortable and engaging environment, as well as offer personalized assistance based on the preferences or history of each individual. This extra attention to detail results in more than just safety; residents are comfortable, healthy, and happy.

Learn more about what life is like at a memory care community by meeting Shelby Jean, a resident at a Cedarhurst community. Our video “A Day in the Life: Memory Care” gives you a glimpse into the power of dementia-specific lifestyle accommodations.

A Day in the Life: Memory Care

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