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Friendship may mean confronting friend about possible dementia

Carol Bradley Bursack, Minding Our Elders columnist

Dear Carol: A friend of mine lives alone in an apartment. She's 73 and has an active life. Recently, she has gotten lost when driving a couple of our mutual friends to familiar places. She's also been forgetting our regular get-togethers. Several of us have noticed that she repeats herself often. We've talked with her family but they don't see anything beyond normal aging. Should I approach her in a non-threatening way to talk about changes that we all experience as we age while I call attention to my own struggles? Maybe I can determine if she's self-aware or in denial. Should I contact her family again? Should I just stay out of it? — GT

Dear GT: This woman's family really may not see anything beyond normal aging or they may prefer to live in denial because it's easier. Whatever the reason, they don't seem inclined to help so I'm afraid that the conversation is up to you and/or your friends.

Begin, as you mentioned, by describing your own frustrations with the normal aging process and see if she admits to having any issues of her own. If she doesn't bring up any worries, or denies your concerns when you bring them to her attention, it could be that she's forgetting the incidences or that she, too, is living in denial.

During your talk, I'd ask her if she's taking any new medications that could be causing problems. Even if she says no, tell her that there may be medication interactions that she's unaware of or other reversible reasons for the symptoms that you and your friends have noticed, but she must see her doctor in order to find out. Remind her that she could be endangering herself or others if she does nothing. Knowing that there could possibly be reversible reasons for her memory glitches may make it easier for her to move forward.

Even if she's resistant, gently press her. Tell her that you think it's imperative to find out what's causing her problems. Offer to accompany her to the doctor if she'd like. The doctor can refer her to a dementia specialist if needed.

If she refuses to see a doctor when you first bring it up, then try again later, but be aware that she may continue to refuse until fear drives her there. Keep up the pressure, but do so gently or she may push you away and then she might not have anyone.

Some people will think that concerned people should be aggressive and confrontational. Others may think that you should let it go because it's not your business. There are circumstances that either of these approaches could be right but I feel that if we are compassionate, and allow people to save face, good friends can accomplish much.

This shouldn't be your responsibility, but someone needs to work with her. Treat her gently, but be firm if she resists. I frankly think that she'll be relieved once you break the barrier.

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at She can be reached at