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Memory Loss: When to be Worried and How to Help

When keys are so easy to lose, there’s no need to panic when you or your elderly loved one misplaces them. The same goes for forgetting names or mixing up words. Everyone can forget an appointment, forget that one word “on the tip of their tongue” or become easily distracted. But for the 5.5 million Americans inflicted by Alzheimer’s disease, others affected by one of the 70 types of dementia and the families that love them, these signs of memory loss may trigger significant worry.

There is a difference between normal age-related memory loss and serious memory impairment. As we age, our memory makers and keepers (our brains) change. The adult cortex shrinks in our 40s, neurons in the brain atrophy, aging brains get less blood flow, and some of our abilities to remember words, people and habits decline as a result. When these scientific, physical changes are near inevitable for almost every human, why is it still hard to accept changes in memory as at least partially inevitable too?

In addition to the normalcy of these changes, it is also normal for us to compare ourselves or seniors we love to more cognitively sharp, previous selves if memory loss happens. There can be embarrassment surrounding forgetfulness, making it seem like it’s detrimental to our intelligence or former reputation. This article will help you understand that many aspects of memory loss are nothing to feel embarrassed about. More importantly, it will teach you when to take memory loss seriously – if it is an actual threat to you or your senior loved one.

What is Memory Care?

Memory Care is a “distinct form of long-term care designed to meet the specific needs of a person with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or other types of memory problems,” according to Alzheimers.net. Memory care communities are safe places for people with memory problems to receive special services accommodating their unique needs. Memory care communities often provide 24-hour supervision, assistance with activities of daily living (ADLs) and medical monitoring. Staff members are trained particularly for assisting people with dementia or impaired cognition. Sometimes, assisted living facilities have a separate area or wing for memory care, which can be called a special memory care unit (SCU).

While memory care can refer to the service and location where aging adults with memory problems can receive supervised long-term care, the act of memory care itself is just as instrumental in securing the wellbeing and safety of seniors with memory impairments.

How can seniors and families of seniors take care of memory, preserve cognitive vitality and cope with the symptoms of memory problems?

The Difference Between Normal and Serious

Memory problems become apparent when an individual’s lifestyle is affected by it. This affect can be small; perhaps as you age you’ve noticed certain inconsequential lapses in memory when you communicate with others or misplace items. When the affect of memory problems exceeds a certain limit and negatively impacts your lifestyle, it is serious. You, as the senior undergoing the change or the family member observing it, must know the difference between normal age-related memory changes and serious cognitive impairment.

You are undergoing normal, age-related changes in memory and if these signifiers apply to you or your elderly loved one:

  • Can become easily distracted
  • Occasionally forget times for appointments
  • Forgets names
  • Occasionally forgetting where you leave things
  • Able to function independently
  • Able to recall past incidents of forgetfulness
  • Has no trouble holding conversations
  • Doesn’t get lost in familiar places
  • Has the same judgment and decision-making ability.

These are changes in memory that you or your elderly loved one may be suffering from or beginning to experience dementia or other serious memory problems:

  • Difficulty performing simple tasks
  • Forgetting how to do things you’ve done many times
  • Having trouble making decisions
  • Showing poor judgment
  • Behaving socially inappropriately
  • Getting lost or disoriented in familiar places
  • Forgetting words frequently
  • Repeating phrases and stories in the same conversation

If you are unable to distinguish the difference between normal and serious, problematic memory loss, please speak to a primary physician about any of your concerns. Here are complete lists of symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease for your reference.

Tools for Aging Adults

It is scientifically proven that behavior changes can help people stay sharp for as long as possible. A study called “Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly,” also known as ACTIVE, found that short mental workouts improve mental performance and can even sustain it for up to five years. This means that challenging yourself mentally by exercising memorization, reasoning or visual concentration can promote cognitive vitality. So can other lifestyle strategies that you can read about here.

Some people think good memory is an ability to recall things immediately. Good memory is actually good learning and retention of information. A strong mind can associate new information it encounters with other information it already holds. For example, making a mental note of where you leave your keys, like “They are by the fruit on the table,” will associate something new to remember (where your keys are) with something you already know (the fruit is always on the table). Besides making mental notes to remember things you’ll need later, here are some other memory care tools you can use to exercise your mental skills:

  • Play strategy games you are new to like crosswords, simple video games, chess, checkers, puzzles or Sudoku.
  • Read something daily like the newspaper, magazines or books. Choose reading material that challenges you intellectually.
  • Be willing and dedicated to learning new things like taking a new driving route, new recipes, musical instruments, a foreign language or a physical activity.
  • Take on a project that requires planning, like designing and planting a garden, organizing a party or volunteering for community events.

Tools for Families and Caregivers

Family members and caregivers, who may very likely be one in the same, are the frontline observers and responders to senior loved ones with memory issues. They are the people who will observe noticeable changes in their loved one’s memory, realize the shift from normal to serious memory loss and unfortunately, often be the ones to break the news of declining memory to the person experiencing it. Especially when seniors undergoing memory loss or diseases like dementia or Alzheimers will tend to deny any suggestion of their illness, family members breaking the news might also fear breaking the hearts of their loved one and all other people who will be affected by their mental change.

Memory problems are difficult to accept, but to deal with them, families and caregivers can use several tools meant to maximize memory care and comfort the person experiencing it.

Communicating with someone with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia can be excruciatingly hard to do. The person’s memory loss may inhibit them from speaking linearly, remembering things they have just said, or mixing up names and words to a point of confusion. Family members and caregivers also may expect the person to have the same intellect and speaking ability they have always had in the past, which can be frustrating. To communicate effectively with someone with memory loss, secure the person’s attention by maintaining eye contact, speak clearly and succinctly, be extremely patient, use kind, encouraging words, notice your body language and take a break if you get frustrated.

Activities of daily living, or ADLs, are core to caregiving for the elderly needing long-term care, whether they suffer from memory loss or not. But while cooking, cleaning, bathing and dressing may be justifiably easy with a coherent, mentally healthy senior, these tasks can prove challenging with someone suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. If you are providing care to someone who panics because they do not recognize you, it might even feel like your caregiving is harmful to the person in need. This and other mishaps can happen in the delicate situation of caring for someone with memory loss. These are good tips to keep in mind while providing assistance with ADLs for someone cognitively impaired. Remember that the key to good caregiving is to promote independent living as much as possible.

  • Keep a routine and schedule to familiarize the person with an easy-to-remember pattern of events every day. This lessens anxiety and provides the person with a sense of security.
  • Place dressing accessories in the person’s wardrobe to enable independent dressing, if possible. Such accessories include zipper pulls, elastic waistbands, slip-on shoes and velcro closures. Lay out 2-3 outfits for the person to choose from, rather than letting them become overwhelmed by a closet-full of options.
  • Manipulating silverware may cause anxiety for some people with memory loss, so try making eating as easy as possible by providing finger food items like sandwiches, wraps or pre-cut fruits and vegetables.
  • Label doors of rooms in the house if you are providing in-home care. Leave the lights on in the bathroom at night or keep night lights on to guide the person if they need to go to the bathroom at night time.
  • Keep them occupied by scheduling or stationing work stations, hobbies, exercise areas or other physical places to be in at certain times to engage in healthy activities.

The Reality of Memory Loss

As mentioned, there may be some degree of heartbreak while dealing with your own or a family member’s memory loss. Memories are precious, and when lost it can feel like losing parts of meaning in your life. While senior parents suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia may even forget who the most beloved people in their life are, the people they love suffer feelings of helplessness and mourning at “losing” someone who is familiar to them. Sometimes, families will grieve for the person with memory loss long before they actually pass away. The reality of memory loss is just that – a loss – but it’s also the making of room to create more memories in the time our loved ones have left with us. Use it well.

 

“Memory Care Reminders,” by Michelle Mendoza, Amada Blog contributor.

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