What's wrong with my brother?
January 20, 2008 6:14 PM   Subscribe

I know this is not a medical board but 'just speaking in terms of human experience - my brotherr is 77, an ex-ultra marathoner, ex space shuttle designer now fallen on hard times, health-wise and emotionally. He sleeps all day, is up all night, has dizzy spells and is always angry and swears constantly at his wife. They lead a very isolated, survivalist existance. He hasn't been to the doctor in 20+ years and won't go now. He used to be a health food nut, ran in 50 marathons but had double knee replacement 10 years ago and 'never recovered, emotionally, in that he lost his old running lifestyle after the surgeries. Any ideas? He's also very forgetful. Thanks for any help.
posted by Tullyogallaghan to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry for his and your troubles.

I'm just spitballing, but is it possible that he started running originally to combat depression?

Forgetful and angry are signs of depression, and some other neurological and physical maladies than affect older people.

Your best bet is to take him aside, in private, and discuss it with him. Not during an argument and don't make it an event. Just invite yourself over and have a chat, and convince him that medical care has improved a lot since he was last under care, and that you think he might benefit from a checkup.
posted by gjc at 6:23 PM on January 20, 2008

I second the depression. Irritability, especially, is a sign of depression in older populations. Add that to the sleeping all day, forgetfulness, and isolation and it seems to point straight to depression.

I know you said he doesn't want to go to a doctor, but would he consider seeing a psychiatrist? A doctor would probably be best, though, as the doctor will be able to check for other disorders that could be looking like depression.
posted by Nickel at 6:28 PM on January 20, 2008

It sounds very much like early dementia.

Always angry, poor sleep cycles, duzzy spells and forgetful, combined with his age are all classic signs.
posted by Silentgoldfish at 6:33 PM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Echoing the others who say this sounds like depression, dementia, or both.

Unfortunately, there's not a lot you can do to make an adult go to the doctor or otherwise seek help. Unless a court declares him incompetent, your brother is free to avoid doctors and live the "survivalist lifestyle" as he chooses. This is frustrating for family members to watch.

You can pull him aside, and express a sibling's concern that his health might be suffering and a visit to a doctor would be in order; you can research and recommend doctors who might be able to help him. You can also offer to accompany him to his first doctor's appointment. However, don't beat yourself up if he refuses to go. As I said, there's precious little you can do to make an adult do something he doesn't want to do.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 6:54 PM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

The anger and odd sleep habits were the first signs my grandfather exhibited of his dementia. He was also signifcantly younger than your brother.
posted by milarepa at 6:57 PM on January 20, 2008

Just throwing this out here... could you introduce him to other activities that might make him feel like his old self... perhaps rowing/canoeing/boating. I hear it's a pretty tough sport, so maybe he will get somewhat of the same rush he had when he was doing his marathons.
posted by bitteroldman at 7:47 PM on January 20, 2008

Depression, dementia, Alzheimer's all come to mind. It could also be age-related memory loss. The rest--if you can get him to a doctor, it would be great.
posted by 6:1 at 7:52 PM on January 20, 2008

There probably is not much you can do. This is up to your brother and he is in the funk.

Can you exercise with him? There are exercises he can still do, in the pool, perhaps on an elliptical machine. He might no longer be Jack Lalane, but this was an anchor for him once and now that it seems that his mental faculties might be going it could be again. The danger is if he overdoes it and hurts himself. He ain't no spring chicken you know. Anyway, if you can go with him, motivate him, that might be a help. He is living life his way and that is what makes him comfortable, even if it does come with risk. If I were you I would worry first about trying to get him to come out of his shell, and let the other things come if they can. Best of luck to him.
posted by caddis at 8:02 PM on January 20, 2008

has dizzy spells

Could be many things, but he should see a doctor very soon.
posted by LoriFLA at 9:34 PM on January 20, 2008

How about getting him a recumbent bicycle? (I don't mean recumbent exercise bikes, I mean the real go-on-rides bike.) There are many styles in various price ranges, and a friend who rides a recumbent says they're pretty easy on the knees.
Googling turned up recumbent sites such as:
(This last one tells how to build your own from scavenged parts; you didn't specify whether you and bro are mechanically inclined, but that could turn into an interesting project.)

If you could just get him started on some type of mild exercise program -- or even yoga -- it might help lift him out of what appears (to all who've responded so far) to be depression. Also, have you considered doing something that will help your sister-in-law? It sounds like she's living in hell, too.

Good luck!
posted by Smalltown Girl at 9:36 PM on January 20, 2008

As a person who often becomes depressed or forgetful for no good reason and an ex-runner (thanks, knees!) who misses the activity like a junkie misses a fix, I, too, first thought, "Ding-ding-ding! Depression."

Survivalist lifestyle and the preference to live in an isolated place may or may not coincide. Can't say, 'cause I know that's my ultimate goal--but I've known folks better-adjusted than I who live that way.

The symptoms of disturbed sleep cycles, dizziness, and fits of anger do not indicate the condition of a well person, physically or mentally. You know the answer--at his age, he should see a doctor. Hard to persuade such a brilliant, independent soul, I know. He will see through tricks. Please check up on your sis-in-law, while you're at it. This can't be easy for her, either.

Do you have the time to bond with him right now? Get him out of the house, go for long drives, strolls, or whatever else interests you both. If I had an older sibling going through this, I would spend as much time as I could with the person who is still somewhat himself as I could. I saw too many people in my foster families and (ex) married family fight with their kin when the person's personality changed. You might be able to listen to him and find out what's on his mind or what physically bothers him and persuade him to visit a physician.

I'm sorry you're experiencing this--I wish all of you well.
posted by bonobo at 10:00 PM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Bicycling is generally easier on the knees than running, and there's quite a few older people happily biking and doing quite well--especially on longer endurance-type rides (much like the ultramarathoning).

It sounds like finding like-minded folks wouldn't exactly be a big impetus for him if he's a bit of an isolationist, so you could try to sell the "freedom from oil" aspect, perhaps. :)

Get that man on a bike!
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 6:21 AM on January 21, 2008

I'm going to chime in and say you must get him active again. For a man like that, being cooped up doing nothing is next to being dead.

A bike is a great idea, as is kayaking or canoeing. He may not be able to run marathons again (I don't know the extent of his knee problems) but if he's healed well from the surgeries, he should be able to go on short hikes. Offer to go with him the first few times if he's scared of fucking up his knee and falling or something like that.

At his age he should be seeing a doctor at least yearly. I understand not wanting to, and it gets harder to want to go the longer you've been not going. Perhaps you could frame it in the way of his going to the doctor would be a favor to you? I don't know. But I do think it's important that you try to get him to see a doctor.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 7:35 AM on January 21, 2008

Has he, by any chance, been a long-time vegetarian? Long-term avoidance of meat will result in B-vitamin deficiency, and exhibits many of the same signs as dementia. It'd be worth taking a look at his diet, at any rate.
posted by eiramazile at 3:51 PM on January 21, 2008

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