What to Do When Elderly Parents Deny They Have Alzheimer’s Disease

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by Ray Burow |

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An Alzheimer’s diagnosis is perhaps one of the most difficult to accept, and yet an estimated 50 million people around the globe have Alzheimer’s or related dementia. How many suffer from the disease but haven’t been diagnosed — or deny their diagnosis — is unclear.

Described by the Alzheimer’s Association as the most common cause of dementia, it is understandable why anyone diagnosed with the disease would be devastated. Some fail to believe or accept their diagnosis. This presents a challenge for adult children who understand the ramifications of nonacceptance.

Denial isn’t the answer

Facing dementia is scary, but the first steps toward treatment begin with acceptance. It is the only way to move forward, and elderly parents who refuse to believe a doctor’s assessment will slip backward. Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by a steady decline, but for those who refuse treatment, the decline is steep and rapid.

It’s possible to live for many years with Alzheimer’s disease. How well you live depends on early detection and treatment. The goal is to stave off serious symptoms for as long as possible, but it isn’t easy to convince a skeptical parent that episodes of memory loss aren’t natural to old age. Their denial delays treatment.

They can’t help their denial

Anosognosia is a condition that causes a person to deny a medical condition. It is the failure to accept a physical medical condition even when the symptoms match a disease like Alzheimer’s. The brain won’t allow the information to penetrate. You can’t convince a person with anosognosia that they have Alzheimer’s disease.

Anosognosia isn’t denial. It is a condition that is reported by the National Institutes of Health as having a prevalence that ranges between 15 and 25 percent. Alzheimer’s and stroke patients can have the condition, which is prevalent in persons who have damage to the brain’s frontal lobe. Those with serious mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, are more likely to suffer from anosognosia.

Dealing with a parent’s denial

Concentrate on what you can do, rather than on what your parent refuses to accept.

It may be more advantageous to insert yourself into their routine, rather than attempting to convince your mom or dad that they have a debilitating disease. Speak with them about making a plan for the future, one that would position you as protector, trustee, or caregiver. They may deny needing help right now but will be open to making a plan for their future, when they’re old and need it. Fear of the inevitable is a primary reason that a parent denies having Alzheimer’s disease. Allaying those fears will maneuver them away from the crippling effects of denial.

If it’s stubbornness rather than a medical condition that prevents your parent from accepting their diagnosis, then you may revisit the conversation at a later date. Mom or Dad may be more open once the diagnosis has set in. However, the sad fact is they may never accept it, in which case, you can only do what you can do.

The first and best solution is to contact the Alzheimer’s Association for support.

Join an online or local support group. It is helpful to be in the company of people who have similar situations. Together, you may find a solution for your unique situation.


Note: Alzheimer’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Alzheimer’s News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Alzheimer’s Disease.


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