How to help someone with memory loss

Occasionally misplacing keys or forgetting details are examples of normal age-related forgetfulness. When memory loss involves repeatedly asking the same question, having trouble naming objects or changes in personality, these may be signs of dementia

Occasionally misplacing keys or forgetting the time of an appointment are examples of the normal forgetfulness that comes with age.

When the memory loss involves repeatedly asking the same question, having trouble naming objects, or changes in personality, these may be signs of dementia.

Dementia is persistent and progressive, meaning it will get worse with time.

“I know how challenging it can be for caregivers to help someone with memory loss,” said Tammy Evanow, APRN, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Norton Neuroscience Institute. “When a loved one is losing their memory, there are things you can do to help every step of the way.”

First, if you see signs of dementia, have a conversation. Pick a place where the person feels comfortable. Be gentle but straightforward.

When raising the issue, try the following:

  • Say you have noticed changes and ask if your friend or family member has noticed them as well.
  • Give an example of something the person has done that worries you and ask if anything else like that has happened.
  • Ask if they are willing to see a health care provider to get checked out and offer to go with them.

“Let your loved one know that the sooner you both know what’s causing these problems, the sooner they can be addressed,” Tammy said.

As dementia progresses, a person with the condition may have trouble remembering recent conversations or events. They may not be able to retrieve the memory or may not have stored the information in the first place.

It’s not helpful to tell someone with dementia that they are repeating themselves or have heard the information already. Try not to become frustrated. Do what you can to maintain body language that is warm and encouraging.

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How to help

  • Encourage the person to use a journal or calendar to record events and conversations.
  • Give simple answers to questions and repeat your answers as many times as you need to. You also can write down your answers.
  • If the person is unlikely to remember whether they’ve done something, ask questions that give context. For example, “It’s been a while since you ate lunch. Are you hungry?”

As the dementia progresses further, remembering names and words becomes more difficult. The person may even forget the names of people they have known for a long time. They might also confuse words or forget the meanings of words. Try some of these strategies:

  • You can help with names by identifying people who are present. For example, you could say, “Your granddaughter Emma is here.”  A memory book with photos and information about people can be a valuable reference.
  • When someone with dementia has difficulty finding a word, be patient and give them time to express their thought. Do your best to understand what they are trying to say, based on the context.
  • If the person doesn’t understand a word you are using, trying putting it in context. For example, if they can’t place the word “key,” you could call it “the thing to open the door.”
  • If the person with dementia is at risk of getting lost while going out alone, go with them or make sure they have some form of identification when they go out.
  • If the person does not recognize you, remember that it isn’t personal. Focus on communicating in the moment.
  • Even without words, there are many ways to communicate and maintain an emotional attachment. Your tone of voice, your body language and your facial expressions all help the person to understand you and feel more comfortable. 

The Norton Neuroscience Institute Memory Center has caregiver support services, including a memory caregiver support group, education opportunities and classes, such as the Scrapbooking for Memory Workshop.

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