Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias affect memory by damaging brain cells. Usually, the first sign is memory loss. Short-term memory goes first, so someone experiencing early Alzheimer’s will forget what they’ve just done or learned, forget important dates or appointments, ask the same question repeatedly, and lose things. General concentration becomes a problem.
In the early stages, someone with dementia might be aware of a decline in memory. People in this stage can function fairly well, but difficulties remembering things and concentrating hard enough to make decisions or complete jobs around the house will become increasingly frustrating.
In later stages, long-term memories go away. Someone with dementia can forget where they live, forget their family, and forget things as basic as how to use a fork or say their own name. Trying to recall what happened earlier, a brain with Alzheimer’s may start to fill in the gaps with stories that feel logical, which is called confabulation. People with dementia may remember events from their distant past, especially emotional events, and get excited about trying to resolve them. Eventually, these older memories are lost as well.
It is crucial that you, as caregiver, always remember that your loved one is showing symptoms of a disease. Forgetting your name, or something you just said to do, is never a choice.
Below are several tips for coping with memory problems, but probably the most important decision you can make is to remain calm and understanding at all times. Caring for someone who doesn’t understand or can’t remember is frustrating. Caregiver stress is real. But if you can remember that a disease is responsible, and that your loved one’s difficulties are a consequence of the disease, you’ll have done the most important job.
Nothing will reverse your loved one’s memory problems; dementia is a progressive disease with no known cure. Its symptoms can be managed, however, so that caregivers and their loved ones live well and prosper despite the disease. What follows are suggestions to ease struggles with memory loss.
Use Memory Aids
In early stages, memory aids can help your loved one’s ability to recall. Examples include post-it notes, signs, and step-by-step written instructions (kept brief). Place explanatory labels with large block letters on the outsides of doors, cabinets, and drawers. If words are confusing, try pictures.
Copy keys and have backups for eyeglasses, medications, and other items that may get lost. People with dementia have a hard time finding things, and keeping backups lets you replace what they need until it’s found again, minimizing anxiety. (Keep spares where only you can find them.)
Prevent important items from becoming lost by locking them away. Expensive jewelry, sentimental photos, and other keepsakes may need to be managed by you, as caregiver, so they don’t get lost. Also consider keeping only a small amount of cash out in the open.
Long explanations or reasons won’t make sense to someone with dementia. Clarify as simply as possible.
Use photos from your loved one’s past to remind of relationships and experiences that may still be possible to remember. Until the late stages, there may be some ability to remember the good times, and feel uplifted.
If your loved one seems to have flashed back to an event earlier in life, meet them on that level and speak as if they’re right, like you’re in the past too.
Don’t correct if your loved one says something wrong; instead, suggest otherwise. “That’s not Jenny” is not as good as “I think that’s your granddaughter Samantha.”
Cue the Music
Dementia destroys memory but does not impact the part of the brain that processes music. For this reason, playing favorite songs can help your loved one’s mood and even arouse long-lost memories. For more information, including simple music players for people with Alzheimer’s, click here.
Stick these small electronic devices (like key finders) to items that often get misplaced, then they can be easily located using a remote or your smartphone.
The same GPS devices used to locate people who are wandering can also be used as general help for someone who can’t remember what is happening. The assistance button puts a person with dementia into immediate contact with you or someone else who can help.
Motion sensors can be placed that speak reminders aloud when your loved one walks past. For instance, after using the bathroom, your loved one might walk out and hear “Did you turn off the water?”
Programmable medication dispensers are set to timers, so your loved one doesn’t need to remember when to take medicine.
Automatic switches can be programmed to turn off water and appliances in the house if your loved one has difficulty remembering.
For more on these, including side effects and information about effectiveness, click here.
For people in early- and middle-stage dementia, cholinesterase inhibitors help strengthen neurotransmitters in the brain and may improve memory. Available prescriptions are Aricept, Razadyne, and Exelon.
For mid- to late-stage dementia, memantine may improve memory somewhat by strengthening communication between brain cells. Studies showed that the decline in ability to do things like brush teeth was slower for subjects taking memantine. The prescription brand name is Namenda.
Cannabidiol comes from cannabis plants but does not produce the “high” that comes with cannabis’s other famous product, marijuana. CBD reduces inflammation and may lessen several symptoms, including memory loss.