Being there for someone with memory loss
Caring for an elderly friend or relative is a wonderful privilege. When that person is a parent or grandparent then it gives us a unique opportunity to reciprocate the love, support and unconditional care that they gave us so unreservedly as we grew up.
It can, however, also be a challenge, particularly when we combine it with the existing demands that our work, career and family place on our time and attention.
As we age we become prone to a host of physical conditions but unless we’re extraordinarily fortunate, chances are we’re going to experience some form of memory loss.
Memory loss affects most seniors in some way or another. Sometimes, the effects can be as minor as the frustration of missing a doctor’s appointment. In others it can be symptomatic of a more serious condition such as Alzheimer’s.
When caring for someone experiencing memory loss, whatever the cause or extent, it can be difficult to know the right way to support them and make them feel safe, secure and loved. While there are many great facilities that provide wonderful senior citizen living, providing adequate care for someone with memory loss might not necessarily be so definitive.
Memory loss and Alzheimer’s. Knowing the difference
As we get older, we all get a little forgetful (I know I do), and it’s important to recognise this a natural part of the ageing process. Our hippocampus (the part of our brain that deals with memory formation and retention) deteriorates and becomes less agile as we get older.
Therefore our ability to form and retain new memories, like where we put our keys, can get a little spotty. Despite this, our entorhinal cortex (which deals in what we perceive as familiarity) changes very little with age, enabling us to remember the location of our church, the date of our wedding or the face and voice of a loved one regardless of age.
Alzheimer’s, on the other hand, represents a decline in cognitive health and compromises not just our memories but all of our cognitive processes such as conversation, performing familiar tasks or filling out a crossword puzzle.
In many cases the symptoms of ‘normal’ memory loss and Alzeimer’s may be near-identical but the following indicators may help you identify the latter.
Forgetting important dates and events
We all forget the odd appointment, or a work colleague’s leaving dinner but if your loved one is routinely forgetting appointments, your wedding anniversary or even their own birthday then this can be sign that their memory loss is more severe than the typical parameters of old age.
Problems with familiar tasks and activities
You probably know the recipe for your mom’s famous brownies or your crowd pleasing coq-au-vin so well that you can prepare and cook it blindfolded. Over time, familiar tasks get hard wired into our brain so if your loved one shows an inability to perform them then that can be a sign. Look out for difficult and frustration when cooking, carrying out basic household repairs or with puzzles like crosswords or Sudoku.
Difficulty with problem solving and planning
We use our problem solving and planning skills on a daily basis, even for something as quotidian as going to the corner store. If someone you care for demonstrates an inability to count their change after paying a tab or becomes lost when navigating a familiar route then this may also be a sign of Alzheimer’s.
Changes in mood and personality
Many undergo acute personality changes when they are suffering with Alzheimer’s. They can become confused, suspicious and irritable, prone to depression or flights of upset, especially outside of the home or other comfortable, familiar places.
So, how can you help?
Firstly, it’s important to take some time to yourself, to make sure that you are rested and capable. Remember that it’s not selfish to allow yourself time to recharge your batteries and enjoy your life. Being tired, groggy and irritable isn’t going to help anyone, now is it?
Support and assist
Memory loss and difficulty performing familiar tasks can cause great anxiety and frustration so it’s important to help create a loving, supportive environment. Try not to let them feel guilty or inadequate when they forget and however difficult it may be for you personally, try to keep your temper and remain understanding (that’s where the rest and relaxation will help enormously).
You can help in small but important ways by creating lists, leaving little notes and reminders around the home or marking important dates on a calendar. You can also help by ensuring that keys, glasses etc. are kept in one consistent place to ensure that any frustration and anxiety caused by their loss is avoided.
You can also help by ensuring that they are cognitively stimulated by planning social engagement or encouraging them to take part in classes. Even playing a game of cards or going through a crossword puzzle together can help more than you know.
Get the doctor involved
Some may be reticent to involve a medical professional, as this may cause anxiety in those we care for. Many people (understandably) can get very defensive if you broach the idea of seeking medical advice, particularly if you suspect something as sensitive as Alzheimer’s.
However, it’s worth consulting them as early as possible. They will be able to provide support and advice, and may be able to find alternative explanations for your loved one’s memory loss. Changes in medication, stress and sleep deprivation could all lead to symptoms that may indicate Alzheimer’s and a medical professional will be better placed to identify these than anyone.
Help them help themselves
If Alzheimer’s is the final prognosis, then it’s imperative to ensure that your loved one gets the correct care and attention. This is why it’s important to enlist the help of a doctor as soon as possible as they will be able to connect you with the people who can provide right support and resources. That doesn’t mean that you’re unable to help from here, though.
You can contact local support groups, facilitate relations with caregivers and provide much-needed continuity and compassion for your loved one.