“I saw the bravest man in the world playing the hardest role of his life,” Robin Williams’ widow wrote in October of her husband’s dementia and the months leading up to his death in 2014. When his anxiety, personality changes and memory problems began three years ago, a “foundation of friendship and love was our armor,” Susan Schneider Williams said.

Her story likely strikes a chord among those caring for a loved one with dementia. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that more than 15 million Americans currently are. And her words speak to their important role: to offer companionship and help in planning for the future.

In the early stages of the disease, you and your loved one can work together to make decisions regarding long-term care and financial details. When you know their wishes, it builds confidence for the path forward. That’s why it’s important to act when the first symptoms appear.

The warning signs

So, what can early-stage dementia look like? Experts say to urge someone to see a doctor if they:

  • Consistently struggle to find the right word or name
  • Have difficulty remembering names of people they’re introduced to
  • Lose their sense of time and place
  • Forget where they are or how they got there
  • Lose or misplace things of value
  • Have trouble planning or organizing

“What we did not know was that when these diseases ‘start’ (are diagnosed) they have actually been going on for a long time,” Williams said of her husband’s swift decline from memorizing an entire script to grasping for a single line of dialogue. It wasn’t until after the 63-year-old actor died that his family found out he had Lewy body dementia.

Taking action

When it’s time to step in, you don’t have to go it alone. Call a family meeting and determine who’s willing to pitch in with caregiving or managing finances. You should also ask your loved one to take you to a meeting with a financial advisor. There you can get expert help in ensuring all estate planning documents are up to date and make a plan for dealing with financial issues. You also might want to discuss the idea of establishing legal authority through a power of attorney, so you can help make important decisions.

Remember, too, that it’s important to get support for yourself. The best thing you can do as a caregiver is to stay physically and emotionally strong and get help when needed. You can always ask your advisor to coordinate with other professionals offering assistance, including your loved one’s financial advisor.

Next steps:

Talk to your professional team about:

  • Estate planning
  • Budgeting for long-term care
  • Planning for the possibility of cognitive decline

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