Distinguish Real Signs and Symptoms of Dementia from Depression or Normal Aging

mental concerns with aging
Man is a pattern-seeking creature. It’s built into humanity, a function of evolution. We form shapes out of randomness and make faces from shadows and mountains on a cold and distant moon. Evolutionary psychologists think our capacity—some would say need—to do so springs from having to spot the movement of predators or prey on a savannah teeming with chaotic nature. It helps us spot danger. It might be the reason why, when talking to an aging loved one, we are sure we see dementia in every forgotten name or misplaced memory.

That’s a normal part of helping a loved one as they get older. Mental illnesses are very real and losing someone you love inside their own mind is one of the greatest fears we face, which makes us hyper-alert for any signs. While on the whole this is good, we also need to know how to distinguish signs and symptoms of dementia from normal symptoms of aging, and especially from depression. Depression is an altogether different condition, and needs to be taken seriously and treated. Consigning everything to a stereotypical senility  is medically incorrect, and isn’t the best way to help someone you love, which is why knowing the signs is so important.

Understanding The Types and Signs of Dementia

Although in popular language saying “she might have dementia” is broadly accepted, it is an inaccurate phrasing. Dementia isn’t a specific disease, but an umbrella term for many different types of declines in mental ability. The most common of these is Alzheimer’s, which accounts for anywhere between 60-80% of dementia cases. Other types include vascular dementia (most commonly found after a stroke), frontotemporal dementia, Huntington’s Disease, or Dementia with Lewy Bodies (also known as Lewy Body Dementia, a disorder made widely known after the tragic suicide of Robin Williams).
All of these illnesses have specific, but often overlapping symptoms. Some of the early warning signs can include:

  • Repetitive questioning
  • Short-term memory changes
  • Verbal aphasia (not being able to find the right word; struggling with language)
  • General apathy or listlessness
  • Sudden and unpredictable mood changes
  • Difficulty following the conversation or understanding what is happening (like being unable to follow the plot in a movie, only in real life)
  • Difficulty doing normal tasks
  • Getting lost in normal places

There are of course more signs, and some that are more prominent and idiosyncratic, such as hallucinations with Lewy Body Syndrome, or having severe memory loss, but being otherwise unimpaired and fully-functioning, as in Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. But those are more overt disorders. The problem is knowing when subtle signs mean something severe.

Understanding Normal Aging Slowdowns

It isn’t actually unusual to have more trouble remembering things when you are older, especially things that happened a long time ago. Think about when you are 30 or 40: faces of schoolmates fade into a greyish blur and you don’t remember every teacher’s name you’ve ever had. The brain is a magnificent and willful computer; it sorts what it feels are needed memories and locks others away so that we can function. As you get older, there are more and more memories that need to be sorted. That’s why when an aging loved one is telling a story from a long time ago (or maybe not that long ago) details get lost, and they start and stop again. “Was that Mike—no, it was Larry!” It’s easy when that happens to think, “Dad is losing it.” But that’s normal. The brain is a physical part of our body, and just as a 70-year-old can’t jump as high as when he was younger, mental facilities become slightly more rigid as well.
Clinically, signs of dementia come from having “multiple cognitive deficits,” with short-term memory being an early sign. Dementia isn’t just forgetting things; it is the growing inability to live independently. Think of it like this: when you lose the plot in the movie, you might forget why the lead character suddenly has an Australian accent and is going undercover in the Sydney Mafia. In real life, an aging loved one might forget the part where they set the alarm, pay bills, or even eat. It isn’t being scatterbrained; it is being unable to take care of yourself. Those are the signs loved ones should be looking for.

Signs of Dementia vs. Depression

This is a far more serious issue and one that is often overlooked in our understandable rush to see any signs of creeping mental illness. Senior depression is a devastating condition, brought on by a confluence of events, including feeling helpless, losing friends, isolation, and the fear of dying. It is too often marked by an inability and reluctance to talk about it, which makes it doubly difficult for loved ones to understand what is going on.
One of the problems is that many symptoms tend to overlap with dementia. Apathy, mood changes, confusion, loss of appetite, difficulty doing simple tasks, sudden crying, an inability to take care of oneself, and other signs can often be interpreted as dementia. But depression is an altogether different condition, and one that very seriously needs to be treated.
The first step is knowing what you are dealing with. While it may be hard to get someone struggling with depression to perform a memory assessment test, it might be vital to understanding their condition. If depression is diagnosed, outpatient psychotherapy may be the best way to go. Getting help may be the best way to allow our aging loved ones to enjoy their later years and to see them as a vital and exciting part of life, to try new things and to embrace the possibilities. Thinking “mom is getting senile” when mom is really crying desperately for help is a compounding tragedy that can echo for years.
Other than looking for patterns, one thing humans are very good at is making little jokes to stave off being sad or scared. We say “the old gal is losing it” and laugh a little bit so that we don’t have to think of what it really means. But dementia and depression are serious issues, and they can both, to varying extents, be treated or slowed down if caught early enough. So while it is important not to overreact, it is also important to see the man in the moon for what he really is.
When families, caregivers, and older adults are concerned about memory loss, dementia, and other aspects of aging, The Institute on Aging is ready to offer support and guidance. Please contact us today to learn about our programs and resources.

Institute on Aging

Institute on Aging

Related Posts


Give our dedicated Client Service Specialists a call. We are ready to help.

Follow Us

Three and a half years ago, Maggie Fang started her journey as an Assessment Specialist in the Support at Home Program at IOA. Her excellent people skills enabled her to manage a caseload of older adults and individuals with disabilities, helping them receive homecare to age in place. Maggie was selected to pioneer the Temporary Respite Caregiver Support program, and we are delighted to have such a skilled and dedicated individual leading our newest program at IOA. Thank you, Maggie, for your exceptional work! 

#SocialWorkMonth #WeAppreciateyou #ThankYou #SupportatHome #CaseManager #SocialWorkerAppreciation
Join us at the Adult Day Program at the Enrichment Center as Caregiver Coach Alex shares with us the incredible support and care provided to participants living with dementia. Clients enjoy various engaging activities, from music therapy to art classes, designed to stimulate their cognitive and physical abilities. The skilled staff at the Enrichment Center also provides caregivers with much-needed support and respite, allowing them to take a break and attend to their needs. If you or someone you know is looking for support in caring for a loved one with dementia, the Adult Day Program at the Enrichment Center in the Presidio is an excellent resource for you! 

Learn more by visiting the link in our bio! 

#DementiaCare #EnrichmentCenter #AdultDayProgram #CaregiverSupport #Presidio #Dementia #Memory #Caregiver
At Insitute on Aging, we are committed to attracting and retaining top talent, and we are incredibly fortunate to have Manuel Martinez on our team. With his extensive expertise in housing and community resources, Manuel has been an invaluable asset to our organization. Recently, he was promoted to the role of Assessment Specialist II in our Adults with Disabilities - Home Delivered Meals program. In addition to managing a caseload, Manuel has demonstrated exceptional leadership skills and has become an expert in program management. We are grateful for Manuel's unwavering commitment to IOA and the community we serve. Thank you, Manuel, for your dedication and passion in making a difference in the lives of others. 
#SocialWorkMonth #IOATeam #TopTalent #CommunitySupport #HomeDeliveredMeals #SupportingAdultsWithDisabilities
In honor of #SocialWorkMonth, we're shining a spotlight on one of our exceptional social workers - Patty Myers! 

Patty has dedicated her career and volunteer efforts to support older adults and adults with disabilities in San Francisco. As the Resident Services Coordinator for Institute on Aging's Support in Independent Living program, Patty wears many hats to ensure that the 120+ residents of Martin Luther Towers Senior Housing can age in place comfortably. Her talent for connecting individuals with resources has enabled her to go above and beyond to ensure accessibility and inclusivity for all. Patty's commitment to her work has been unwavering, and we are grateful to have her on our team at IOA. 

#SeniorCare #SocialWork #SupportingTheElderly #SocialWorker #SocialWork #NationalSocialWorkerMonth #Services #Coordinator #Joinourteam