Caring for Aging Parents: Dealing with Memory Loss

3 Mins read

This post is from Katherine Hauswirth, writer for and author of “Harriet’s Voice: A Writing Mother’s Journey”

In our family, it started with Mom getting lost while driving.

This post is from Katherine Hauswirth, writer for and author of “Harriet’s Voice: A Writing Mother’s Journey”

In our family, it started with Mom getting lost while driving. The first time, someone called from a few towns away to say that Mom had ended up there and wasn’t sure how to get home. She’s never had a good sense of direction and it was a stressful time in her life, so I didn’t dwell on the incident too much. The second time, Mom had gone to pick up her new kitten. She later told me she was so excited that she got “turned around” and had driven in the wrong direction. This struck me as odd, because the pet store was in an area with which Mom was familiar. There was also a fender bender or two over the course of a year, and in retrospect I realize that Mom probably shouldn’t have been driving at that point. But memory loss can be sneaky. It tends to creep up on you.

It’s important to know that memory loss isn’t an inevitable consequence of aging. It’s also important to know that not all forms of memory loss are dementia. Many people have some level of age-associated memory impairment, but not all memory issues follow a pattern of worsening over the years. Patients with dementia, however, will suffer a gradual loss of mental abilities over time. Alzheimer’s disease may be the most commonly known form of dementia, and it accounts for about half of all dementia cases, but dementia can be caused by more than 60 conditions. Other more common forms of dementia include multi-infarct dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies. Multi-infarct dementia, a type of vascular dementia, has to do with diminished blood flow in the brain, resulting in a process like having many very small strokes that inflict damage or death to the region affected. According to the National Institutes of Health, it’s the second most common form of dementia. Lewy body dementia, associated with abnormal protein deposits in the nerve cells, accounts for about 15% of dementia cases.

Sometimes it’s difficult for the adult child of an aging parent to know when to worry. Some early signs of dementia include changes in short-term memory, trouble communicating clearly, and trouble with activities like math and planning.  In my own family, we noticed that a new challenge surfaced for Mom. She had trouble with the process of paying bills and managing her money. This Baby Boomer’s Handbook on Helping Parents Receive Care for Memory Problems, by Richard E. Powers, MD, contains a brief questionnaire and frequently asked questions about memory loss that can be a first step in exploring the issue at home.

Expert sources like the Mayo Clinic advocate for consulting with a physician whenever memory loss is a concern, even if you’re not sure whether it’s a serious problem. It could be that your parent has a reversible cause of memory loss, like hypothyroidism or vitamin B12 deficiency. If Alzheimer’s dementia is diagnosed, treatments that can delay the worsening of the condition are now available. Other forms of dementia, such as multi-infarct dementia, do not yet have effective treatments.

If your parent is diagnosed with dementia, you may find over time that it becomes more difficult to communicate. For example, you may not know how to respond when the same question is asked repeatedly, or when your parent is referring to an episode from the past as if it’s just occurred. According to the Alzheimer’s Society, many of the principles that apply to good communication in general are even more relevant in these scenarios: pay attention to body language, listen carefully, and speak clearly. The Society also offers tips specific to this population, especially for people with more advanced forms of dementia. In these cases it is important to avoid direct, open-ended questions and circumvent the need to contradict the memory-impaired person.

Any form of memory loss that affects day-to-day living and isn¹t easily reversible will translate into the need for education and support for the children of the affected parent. The US Administration on Aging’s Eldercare Locator, on online repository for resources, is a good place to start your research. Local care facilities may also keep a current list of programs and support groups. 


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