Most of us become more forgetful as we age. It may take longer to learn new things, remember familiar names and words, or find our glasses or our keys. These are usually signs of mild forgetfulness, not serious memory problems.
Sometimes it is difficult to know when memory loss is more serious. The National Institute of Aging points out that more serious memory problems affect our ability to carry out everyday activities such as shopping or handling money. Signs of serious memory problems may include:
- Asking the same questions over and over again
- Becoming lost in familiar places
- Not being able to follow directions
- Getting very confused about time, people, and places
- Not taking care of yourself--eating poorly, not bathing, or being unsafe.
If you or someone in your family thinks you are having difficulty carrying out your normal activities, it's time to see your doctor. Seeing the doctor early means you can find out what's causing you to be forgetful. Don't let fear stop you from seeing a doctor. You can get help.
There are some illnesses and problems that may cause forgetfulness or confusion, such as depression, adverse reactions to certain medicines, vitamin or mineral deficiencies, blood vessel disease and thyroid problems. Some of these illnesses can be treated and your confusion and memory loss should go away.
When you see your doctor, he/she will check your general health and test your memory, problem solving, counting and language skills. You may also have some medical tests, such as blood work and a urinalysis, as well as a brain scan--also called a CT scan--that will show pictures of your brain. Your doctor will discuss the results of these tests with you and may prescribe medications that may keep your memory loss and other symptoms from getting worse for a time.
There are many resources in the community to assist and support you and your family members if you are diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, dementia, or some other form of memory impairment. The Alzheimer's Association of Northern California in Mountain View offers support groups for newly diagnosed patients and their families, educational workshops and seminars to help you learn about memory loss, coping skills, techniques and exercises that can optimize your memory and help you remain as independent as possible for as long as possible.
Caring for Someone with Memory Loss
As a family member or caregiver, it is important to plan ahead for the changing care needs of the person with memory loss. It is best to do this as soon as possible while the person is able to communicate his/her wishes. These include taking care of health matters, such as Advance Directives and end-of-life planning as well as legal and financial matters, including making or updating a will, living trust or durable power of attorney. Elder law attorneys can assist with legal and financial planning. Our eldercare consultants can provide you with legal referrals, both locally and out-of-state. Advance health care directives assistance is available at the Health Library and Resource Center.
Coping with the care needs of someone with memory loss can often be exhausting and stressful. Often caregivers feel helpless, overwhelmed, and isolated by their caregiver responsibilities. In fact, research shows that caregivers, themselves, are at high risk for depression, health problems, and misuse of alcohol and drugs. It's not unusual for caregivers to become so involved in their caregiver role that they ignore their own physical and mental health needs.
Everyone needs help at times. It's okay to ask for help and to take time for yourself. However, many caregivers find it hard to ask for help. They feel they should be able to do everything themselve or that it's not all right to leave the person with someone else.
You can ask people to help out in specific ways like making a meal, visiting the person, or taking the person out for a short time. Often family members and friends would like to help, but they just don't know what to do.
Our eldercare consultants can provide you with many community resources and information about services and programs, as well as help you develop a plan for caring for your family member. This may include longer term planning and placement issues, such as identification of assisted living or skilled nursing facilities. They will listen to your specific needs and, together, you will make an action plan that you feel comfortable implementing.
You can also join a support group. El Camino Hospital has two caregiver support groups that meet once a month in the Mountain View location. The Alzheimer Association also offers many support groups throughout the Bay Area. It also offers support groups on the telephone and on the Internet. See its website below for times and locations.
El Camino Hospital partners with the Alzheimer's Association to help support workshops and classes designed for caregivers, including strategies for coping with and caring for the Alzheimer's Disease patient along the continuum of disease in order to maintain quality of life for affected families in the community and to provide knowledge and tools so that participants can identify and increase their knowledge of specific priorities and decisions related to long term care. You can find out more information about these classes on the Alzheimer's Disease website listed below.
You can also read about brain fitness to learn how to maintain good cognitive health.
Take Care of Yourself
To avoid caregiver burnout as well as depression and health problems, it is essential that family caregivers take care of themselves. It is important that they have some time to themselves everyday. They also need to have time to spend with friends and family members, to keep up with their interests and hobbies, and to exercise as often as possible. It is also important to maintain their health by seeing their doctor regularly and following preventive health guidelines. El Camino Hospital offers programs on smoking cessation and stress management, to name a few.
Local programs and services for Alzheimer's patients and caregivers, Alzheimer's Association of Northern California
General Information (on Alzheimer's Disease), National Institute on Aging
Videos on Alzheimer's Disease by the National Institute of Health, Senior Health Managing Caregiver Stress, Family Caregiver Alliance