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Memory Loss vs Forgetfulness: Why Knowing The Difference Can Make All The Difference!

As we, (and our parents age!), it's not uncommon for us to become more forgetful. Misplacing items, forgetting appointments, and struggling to recall names can all be a normal part of aging. 

However, when memory loss becomes more severe and begins to impact daily life, it may be a sign of a more serious condition, such as dementia. 

In this blog post, we'll explore the difference between normal forgetfulness and when we may be observing actual short-term memory deficits, and offer you tips as a daughter of dementia who is committed to keeping her parents at home.

Normal Aging vs Abnormal Aging: 

The aging process can affect memory in many ways. It's important to understand that some forgetfulness is a normal part of aging, while other types of memory loss may be a sign of a more serious condition. Here are some key differences to keep in mind:

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What is normal forgetfulness in aging parents?

  • Mild forgetfulness is a NORMAL part of the aging process. (Ever forget where you put your keys?)

  • Examples of normal forgetfulness include walking into the kitchen and saying “what did I come in here for…”, forgetting names of people you know well or forgetting appointments, and occasionally struggling to recall information.

How to distinguish between normal forgetfulness and memory loss in elderly parents?

  • If your parent's “forgetfulness” begins to impact daily life or causes them frustration, it may be a sign of something more serious. Signs that it is impacting daily life may include making errors at work, if they are still working. 

  • Signs of abnormal memory loss may include increasing difficulty completing familiar tasks, getting lost in familiar places or while driving, forgetting to put off the stove or oven, and frequently repeating the same questions or stories.

Short-Term Memory Deficits:

Short-term memory deficits are a type of memory loss that can impact the ability to learn and recall new information. Here are some key points to keep in mind:

What are short-term memory deficits and how do they differ from normal forgetfulness?

  • Short-term memory deficits refer to difficulties in retaining new information or recalling it shortly after learning it.

  • These deficits can impact the ability to learn new skills or perform familiar tasks.

  • Think about your brain storing information like a filing cabinet. When we “file” things in the filing cabinet, we have sorted (if we are doing it well) the information into categories, and then we put it in a place where we can find it again. When we close the drawer, the information is “saved”. This is called coding information.

  • Later, when we need the information again, back to our analogy of using a filing cabinet, we are supposed to be able to open the drawer, look for the information and take it out of the file. That is called retrieving the information.

  • When our brain is unable to code and retrieve information, we start to have short term memory deficits. 

Causes of short-term memory deficits in elderly parents:

  • Short-term memory deficits can be caused by a variety of factors, including medication side effects, poor sleep, depression, and nutritional deficiencies.

  • Never ignore short-term memory deficits as this may be a sign of a more serious condition, such as Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia.

  • We need to de-stigmatize short term memory loss. Time is brain. 

Caring for Elderly Parents with Memory Loss at Home:

If your parent is experiencing memory loss, it can be challenging to provide the care they need while also maintaining their independence (and not losing your life in the process!). Here are some tips to keep in mind:

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Tips for supporting elderly parents with memory loss at home:

  • Create a safe and comfortable environment by removing tripping hazards, installing grab bars, and providing plenty of lighting. (...but if your parents are like mine, moving throw rugs may be a challenge!)

  • Use memory aids, such as calendars and pill organizers, to help your parents stay organized and on track.

  • Encourage your parents to stay engaged with activities that they enjoy, such as hobbies or social events.

Strategies for managing “difficult” behavior:

  • If your parents experience difficult behavior, such as agitation or aggression, stay calm and offer reassurance. (I know how hard that can be…50+ years of interactions are hard to change, but remember YOU can change, they can’t!)

  • Use distraction techniques, such as redirecting your parent's attention to a different activity, to help diffuse difficult situations. (Or, sometimes, you just need to walk away and give you both some space!)

  • Consider seeking professional help, such as an occupational therapist, who specializes in dementia care,  or support group, to help manage difficult behavior.

  • Remember “difficult” behavior is often because we, the people around them, are not understanding their needs, and they may not have the ability to tell you what is going on anymore. 

  • We need to learn how to “speak dementia”, a different but effective way of communicating with our parents with cognitive loss.

Here are five of the best memory aides to consider, along with their websites:

  1. Memory journals: Memory journals are a wonderful way to help your loved one record their memories and experiences. By writing down their thoughts, feelings, and daily activities, they can reinforce their memory and create a sense of accomplishment. Check out this memory journal on Amazon:

  2. Memory Vault App: This app allows you to store, categorize and find your memories in an easy to locate place! Check it out here:

  3. Medication reminders: For those with dementia, it's important to take medications on time and in the correct dosage. There are many low-cost medication reminder apps available, such as Medisafe, that can provide alerts and reminders to help your loved one stay on track with their medications.

  4. Memory games: Playing games is a fun and effective way to stimulate the brain and improve memory. Websites such as Lumosity or BrainHQ offer a range of cognitive training exercises that are designed to improve memory, attention, and other cognitive abilities.

  5. Personalized photo albums: A personalized photo album can be a great way to help your loved one remember people, places, and events from their past. Websites like Shutterfly offer customizable photo albums that you can create and order online.

  6. Reminder cards: Reminders cards can be a helpful way to prompt your loved one about important tasks, such as taking medications, eating meals, or going to appointments. You can create your own reminder cards using index cards or print them out from websites such as Canva.

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Conclusion: 

In summary, it's important to understand the difference between being forgetful and experiencing short-term memory deficits. While being a little forgetful is a normal part of the aging process, actual memory loss may be a sign of a more serious condition. 

If your parents are experiencing real memory loss, it's important to provide them with the support they need while also maintaining their independence. 

With the tips outlined in this blog post, daughters of dementia can provide their parents with the care and support they need to live comfortably and safely at home, while not sacrificing their own life in the process.

Want to learn how? Join our next workshop. Register here!

Read More:

One Mistake A Dementia Caregiver Makes By Not Traveling With Kathy Smith Shoaf

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About the author

“Think Different” Dementia’s owner, Lizette Cloete, OTR/L graduated as an Occupational Therapist from the University of Pretoria in South Africa in 1992. Lizette has almost 30 years of experience as an Occupational Therapist in a variety of settings, the latest being in the home health environment. She enjoys teaching on the topic of dementia, most recently presenting at a national conference on the topic “Dementia Made Simple”.

Disclaimer: These blogs, videos and any work done by Lizette Cloete OT, as a Member of Think Different Dementia, LLC, is given only as educational content and consulting work. This does not create an Occupational Therapist-Patient Relationship. The educational content and consulting work performed should not be considered medical treatment as an Occupational Therapist. The consulting work does not take the place of medical work normally performed by a licensed Occupational Therapist. Please consult a licensed Occupational Therapist for medical advice.

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