When memory problems get worse and they affect daily life, it’s important to visit a GP for a checkup. The first step is to visit your GP. Your GP will ask about general health and will probably do some routine tests, such as taking blood and urine samples. These will be to check whether there are other conditions that could be causing the symptoms. Questions by the GP may include asking about sleep patterns, appetite and feelings of anxiety or being under pressure. This is to discover if stress or depression could be a cause. The doctor will ask specific things about any particular concerns and about memory. That is why it’s useful to have jotted down a few notes beforehand. The doctor will then do some simple tests to find out more about memory and understanding. One of these is called a mini-mental state examination (MMSE). The doctor may also ask a family member, friend or carer what changes they have noticed. Don’t be afraid to ask for explanations of anything. The doctor may then organise a referral to a specialist consultant or a memory clinic. Don’t be afraid to ask for second opinion if your GP does not refer you through but you feel there is something going on.

What does it mean to be ‘referred’?

If your GP feels there is a need for further assessment or investigation, you will usually be ‘referred’ to a consultant psychiatrist who is a specialist in memory problems, sometimes based at a Memory Clinic. He or she is highly experienced in the diagnosis and, if required, treatment of dementia. The consultant may be supported by a dementia specialist nurse who will also be able to help to advise you on any additional help you may need. Memory Clinics operate throughout the country at main community locations and offer assessment, information and advice to those with memory problems and their carers.

What happens when I’m referred?

This appointment involves a doctor or nurse talking with the individual and a relative (or close friend), who is able to explain the difficulties or problems being experienced and their effect on daily living. The team will carry out some tests to find out the strengths and weaknesses of memory, so it is important to take along reading glasses or hearing aids if these are used. It also involves gathering detailed information about the individual’s background, past medical history, any current medical problems and medications currently being taken. They may have a conversation with the person with dementia and their family/friend separately if they feel this will support in their diagnosis. Sometimes, you will be asked to have an MRI scan or blood tests.

The first appointment may take between 1 and 2 hours. It is difficult to be precise about timing as all cases and circumstances are different and may need varying amounts of time. By the end of the appointment the clinic team aim to have completed an assessment, discussed the results and helped plan any future treatment or care. Details of other services which may be helpful will also be made available.

A follow-up appointment will usually be made after three months to undertake a progress review. This appointment takes about half an hour and is an opportunity to discuss any concerns and assess the benefits of any advice or medication that has been given. The memory clinic will often discharge when things are settled and medication is being tolerated well. However if things change you should go to back to your GP, and they will refer you back into the system and to the appropriate teams to give you the support you need. As soon as you need support you should seek help, do not leave it too late.