Caring for someone with memory loss is a difficult experience for the family and friends of the patient. Memory problems can make it hard for older adults to remember cherished events, and it can make practical, day to day activities like sticking with medication schedules and making appointments much more difficult. A family caregiver needs to know as much as possible about what their loved one is going through so they can provide the appropriate amount of support.
Whether they are struggling with Alzheimer's disease or another type of dementia, proper care services can make a huge difference in an older adult's quality of life.
What to Know About a Person with Dementia or Alzheimer's disease
When people think about the cognitive conditions associated with memory loss, they often jump to dementia and Alzheimer's disease. And while those are common culprits (though not considered a normal part of aging), there are a number of other suspects to consider — like Huntington's disease or Creutzfeldt-Jakob's disease.
Dementia is not a specific cognitive disease, but rather a general term for the collection of diseases that lead to cognitive decline — memory loss being among the most significant. The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer's disease, which is caused by a buildup of protein structures that disrupt normal brain functioning. This leads to memory loss and a host of other symptoms that can make life difficult for older adults.
Symptoms of dementia can include:
- Memory loss
- Difficulty with verbal expression
- Struggles with visual or spatial abilities
- Trouble with problem-solving or reasoning
- Difficulty managing complex tasks, critical thinking skills, planning, and organization
- Decline in coordination with motor functions
- Confusion and disorientation
- Personality changes
- Inappropriate behavior
- Depression, anxiety, paranoia, and agitation
Whether you are a health care professional or a family caregiver, helping loved ones experiencing memory loss associated with Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia provides an important line of support.
Helping Someone With Memory Loss
One of the most important things for a person with dementia or memory loss is the ability to feel confident and independent. Being unable to remember important — or even minor — information can undermine an older adult's trust in themselves, and it can necessitate intrusive outside assistance. Even when family or friends are the caregivers, the experience can strain relationships.
Here are some ways to help make your loved one more comfortable.
General Advice for Helping Your Loved One
Learn as much as possible:
One of the best first steps is to study the specific condition affecting your loved one. Different types of dementia have different causes, symptoms, and methods of treatment, and having a handle on that information can help you with your approach. For example, knowing that Alzheimer's disease can cause a loss of balance might explain why your loved one seems nervous to be walking around in public. This can provide a way in for a conversation that can help them feel more comfortable, and it can help you give them the support they need.
Keep things calm and consistent:
Dementia can be a frustrating experience — both for the person experiencing it and the family and friends who act as caregivers for them. Crying, yelling, and angry outbursts are common, so it is best to be prepared to mitigate those emotions. The best course of action is to keep calm. Give the person space and be respectful of what they are feeling.
A clear and regular routine can also help to cut down on the number of frustrations your family might encounter. When things are predictable, older adults with memory problems are less likely to make mistakes that would make them feel embarrassed or upset. Be sure to build time for rest and relaxation into the schedule, too.
Collaborate and find community:
As mentioned, independence is extremely important for older adults. And while their cognitive condition might mean they are no longer able to do some of the things they used to do, you can still make sure that they feel involved in the process. Invite them into conversations about how their case should be managed. Let them tell you what strategies they are comfortable with and follow their wishes to the extent that doing so is appropriate. Connecting them with other older adults who are going through a similar time in their life — and connecting with peers for yourself — is also a great way to find some additional support.
Tips for Specific Behaviors
Forgetting past events and details: Dementia causes damage to the brain that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for older adults to store memories. This can cause them to forget major life events, names and faces, or even important aspects of their identity.
Written and visual records (like notes, descriptions, and pictures) can be helpful here. Prompting with context clues is a good practice, too. It's important not to put them on the spot and to give them the time they need to work through what they are trying to say. You can also place reminders in places your loved one is likely to see them — a calendar next to the fridge or medicine schedule on the bathroom mirror.
Losing things and getting lost:
For someone experiencing memory loss, it's all too common for them to misplace something. Whether it is not remembering where they put their keys or not remembering where they parked their car, it can lead to some real issues. Also, when items are not where they are expected to be, it can lead a person to suspect that someone is hiding or stealing things.
First, try to keep things in obvious, expected places. Keeping things tidy can also help with the search when things do go missing, and it's a good idea to have backups of certain items like glasses or keys if they end up being lost for good.
If your loved one wants to run errands, you can arrange to send someone along for the ride so they do not get lost or forget why they went out in the first place. Identification cards, help cards from the Alzheimer's Society, and GPS tracking technology can also be helpful.
Struggling with day to day activities:
People with memory loss can struggle with complex tasks, so it is important to find ways to help them manage their day to day activities smoothly and on their own. It is sometimes worrying to know they struggle with things like making a cup of coffee or closing the windows at night, as the potential problems range from the inconvenient to the dangerous.
One thing you can do to help is to consider the environmental design of the home — how it functions and flows, and the overall experience of being in their space (sounds, smells, etc.) — to ensure that things are as accessible, intuitive, and distraction-free as possible. Put grounds and mugs next to the coffee maker, create an open concept furniture layout, and have the noisy ceiling fan replaced. You can also break down complex tasks into smaller steps to make them more manageable.
It is never easy when a loved one begins to show signs of memory loss. But with the right knowledge and support, family caregivers can be a big help. But not everyone is capable of providing that care by themselves. Keystone Health provides home health care to Idaho families and can give you and your loved one the support that you need. Get started with us today to have one of our highly-qualified providers walk you through the process.