During the recent holidays many families gathered and celebrated together. This is often a time when you get to see family members you haven’t seen in awhile. And while wonderful, it can also be a bit startling, especially if an older relative isn’t quite acting “themselves.” They are more forgetful, maybe somewhat aloof or a bit confused.

You can easily attribute these changes to simply “getting older.” It’s a natural, self-protective response as it is so difficult to imagine a frightening alternative like dementia or, more specifically, Alzheimer’s disease for someone you are close to.

Before you panic, this post is here to help if you are at all concerned a loved one is exhibiting behavior that could be linked to Alzheimer’s. My intention is to help you identify a process and resources needed for the most accurate diagnosis of the symptoms you are seeing. And, if the diagnosis is Alzheimer’s, help you better understand good years can be ahead.

To start, let’s dispel one of the biggest myths about Alzheimer’s: it doesn’t begin at the end, with the gravest changes that we all fear. In fact, during the earliest stages of the disease, there are real opportunities for a person to live a good quality of life. If Alzheimer’s is diagnosed early there is life after diagnosis. So, let’s put fear on the back burner and make this our focus!

Quickly understanding what you are dealing is critical however, don’t get ahead of yourself and automatically assume Alzheimer’s solely causes any lapse in cognitive function. There are a slew of reasons for symptoms you may be observing, especially with elderly folks, which can be attributed to issues including a hormone imbalance, a urinary tract infection, heart and kidney disorders, even vision and hearing problems (Alzheimer’s Symptoms Medical Conditions)!

To help you better understand what you are observing the Alzheimer’s Association has developed an excellent checklist called “The 10 Early Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s”. I strongly recommend that you review these symptoms. If some of these warning signs ring true, speak with your loved one and talk about finding a doctor to help them.

Regardless of what you may have heard about the difficulty to diagnosis Alzheimer’s according to Monica Moreno, Director of Early-Stage Initiatives for the Alzheimer’s Association, a skilled physician can diagnose Alzheimer’s with an accuracy rate that exceeds 90%.

Whenever I am speaking with family caregivers about Alzheimer’s, I am often asked, “How do I select the right doctor for my family member?” A good place to start is to make an appointment with their primary care doctor. Discuss your concerns and, if necessary, ask for a referral to a specialist, such as a neurologist, with specific experience diagnosing and treating Alzheimer’s. You can also call your local hospital, contact the neurology department and ask for a doctor reference.

In addition to these steps, I encourage you to visit the Alzheimer’s Association website where you can browse their Community Resource Center and hone in on a local specialist and resources. This is a terrific resource!

Once you find a doctor that you both feel comfortable with, you will need to become your loved one’s active health advocate to ensure they receive the most accurate diagnosis and best care possible…as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, with Alzheimer’s, there isn’t a 100% definitive diagnostic test for the disease. Consequently, your doctor may order a series of tests to help eliminate possible causes for the symptoms before forming a professional diagnosis.

This process can produce anxiety, especially if you are unsure of what is going on, so don’t be shy about asking your doctor to clearly explain the testing process. What tests are being ordered? What’s the doctor looking for in the results and why? It is always best to ask questions until you are satisfied. This will also help you develop a better working relationship with your doctor.

A comfortable, open relationship with your doctor is very important and will be most productive. Here’s why it is so imperative in your situation: according to the Alzheimer’s Association, nearly 50% of the time, doctors are hesitant to share an Alzheimer’s diagnosis with their patient and their family caregiver.

I found this statistic hard to imagine. Looking into this further, research by the National Institute of Health gave me insight into what may contribute to this.

It seems because Alzheimer’s has no cure, nor a completely definitive diagnostic test combined with limited treatments options- some doctors are concerned about the emotional burden an Alzheimer’s diagnosis can place on the patient and their family.

Given all to consider, to me it is difficult to rationalize this. To avoid this happening to you:

· Use all available resources to identify a doctor who is very experienced with Alzheimer’s diagnosis and treatment.

· Maintain an open, honest dialogue with your doctor.

· Be assertive and ensure your doctor hears and understands that you want to know all the facts and conclusions of their findings.

Not acting early can rob your family of an opportunity to experience a more meaningful quality-of-life, especially during the early years of Alzheimer’s.

In addition to available medical resources, please know you are not alone. Right now, there are millions of families across the country in a very similar situation to yours.

Today, it is easier than ever to connect with people who totally understand what you and your loved one are going through. In-person and online support groups can help you hear what fellow family caregivers and patients are experiencing, finding out first hand what resources are the most helpful and what’s not. Support groups can be wonderful environments to share your experiences and feelings without fear of being judged.

For in-person support group locations contact your local hospital, place of worship, even ask your doctor. This, together with online communities with organizations including the Alzheimer’s Association, Family Caregiver Alliance and caring.com are wonderful sources for information, companionship and inspiration.

An Alzheimer’s diagnosis does not have to feel like an end point. It can actually be the beginning of a life stage where loved ones can choose to focus on what’s most important and Alzheimer’s Families work together for the richest life possible.

Help others. Help yourself.