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I haven’t been writing as much lately because the drama that was my life as a caregiver over last winter and spring has, for the time being, calmed down. We haven’t seen an emergency room in months, and Dad’s big red taxi (aka, the EMT’s ambulance) has only had to make one courtesy call since July. Lately, though, a new concern focused on mental, rather than physical, health has begun nagging at me. Is what I’m beginning to perceive as a personality change really something, or is it nothing at all?

Dad’s memory has been selective, to say the least, for as long as I can remember. He’s always had an amazing ability to block out the bad from his personal history, which, given his life, was quite possibly an emotional survival strategy. So, since he moved in with me a couple years ago, I’ve been much more focused on his heart, lungs, kidneys and circulation issues than on an occasional inability to remember family stories from the past.

But, more recently, his short-term memory has been going on the fritz periodically. For example, for several weeks I had to repeat to him every few days that the lab slips I keep with his pills on the kitchen table were related to doctors’ appointments not occurring for several months. Invariably, within a couple days he’d hold up one of the slips and say he was heading to the lab that day for a blood draw, and I’d have to have the conversation with him all over again. He hasn’t brought the slips up in the last few weeks, and I’m not sure if my point finally got through, or he’s just decided the lab slips are too much for him to figure out, so he’ll just delegate all responsibility for them to me.

More distressingly, he can become very emotionally reactive. Any comment other than complete agreement or a totally neutral “uh huh” can cause a mini flare-up, generally punctuated by a raised-voice complaint that I’m accusing him of being stupid or a similarly vocal statement suggesting that, perhaps, he should just keep his mouth shut and not say anything at all. (And, yes – because I know you’re wondering – I have managed in these interactions to keep myself from responding in the affirmative.) This situation is becoming stressful on two counts: first, it has turned just about any conversation into a minefield; and, second, it has me wondering if there’s a serious cognitive issue I now need to be tracking.

This is one of my biggest fears. I’ve been attending a small caregivers support group for more than a year, and I’m one of the only group members who isn’t caring for someone with some form of dementia. As bad as things have gotten with Dad’s physical health, I’ve always been incredibly thankful that his mental health hasn’t been an issue. Hearing my fellow caregivers’ stories of their loved ones’ slow and sometimes dangerous forgettings has had me doing a silent knock on wood at almost every meeting. Now I’m wondering if all that wood-knocking should have been more forceful.

Of course, there could be a physical reason for Dad’s symptoms, if that’s what these behaviors are. Maybe he has an infection. Maybe his kidneys are acting up. There could be a drug interaction or, possibly, depression is setting in. I now have an appointment request in with Dad’s doctor, because it seems like it’s time for a second – and professional – opinion. But these questions all point to one of the biggest stress points I have as a caregiver, and to a theme running through many of these posts – when do I decide something is something, or simply declare it to be nothing at all.