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When Memory Loss Becomes Concerning

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Is it time for mom or dad to get memory care?

ow many times have we locked ourselves out of the house, forgotten where we parked the car or blanked on an acquaintance's name? Moments of forgetfulness happen to everyone, especially as we age. But when memory loss affects someone's daily life, it could be a sign of dementia or Alzheimer's disease, the most common type of dementia.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, at least two of the following core mental functions must be significantly impacted to indicate dementia:

Memory, especially short-term memory loss. Signs include forgetting dates or events, asking for the same information repeatedly and increasingly relying on notes and reminders for tasks that used to come to mind easily.

Communication and language. Having trouble following a conversation. A person with dementia may stop in the middle of a thought and not know how to continue or struggle to find the right words.

Focus and attention. Having trouble completing daily tasks. An active adult may stop mid-workout for no reason, losing sight of the task at hand.

Reasoning and judgment. People with dementia may start spending or giving away large sums of money. They may pay less attention to grooming.

Visual perception. Having trouble reading, judging distance and discerning color or contrast.

Caring for an aging loved one is challenging. When that loved one has Alzheimer's disease or another type of dementia, those challenges multiply. "When you're dealing with cognitive challenges, you lose the person in some ways," says Chicago-based Social Gerontologist Lydia Manning Ph.D. "There's a whole other set of losses that are hard to navigate."

If you notice at least two of the red flags outlined above, schedule an appointment with your loved one's doctor or a memory and aging specialist. "It's important to have a baseline to understand the decline and how quickly it's happening," says Manning.

With early detection, you can help your loved one plan for the future. You can also explore medications and other therapies that can slow the disease's progression.

With Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), your loved one may be able to live independently or with family. In time, however, living alone may put your loved one's safety at risk, or they may need more care than a family member can provide.

If your loved one is prone to wandering, round-the-clock care will help keep her from falling, getting lost or getting hurt. Personality and mood changes, such as the period of agitation called "sundowner syndrome," put a strain on family members.

"The stress of the transition can be overwhelming if someone's faculties are not intact," Manning adds. "That's the beauty of communities that assist residents at all stages of aging. Residents are familiar with the space as they transition to memory care."

Memory care communities are specifically designed for older adults with MCI as well as Alzheimer's disease and other dementias.

Many memory care residents improve during their stay because of the increased social opportunities and activities. Some memory care programs have reported:

  • Reduction in medication
  • Decreased falls and injuries
  • Fewer emergency room visits
  • Improved nutrition
  • Increased independence and social interaction
  • Improved or maintained cognitive functioning
  • Increased happiness

"When you have isolation and loneliness, coupled with cognitive impairment, the downward spiral starts," says Manning. "In the right community, people are trained to care for and support individuals with memory loss. There is science behind the activities. And the environment is so supportive."