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What Are Some Things To Do For Seniors With Memory Problems?

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Seniors living with memory problemsMemory problems are difficult to deal with, no matter what age you are.  Not only for the person having them but for those around them as well.  It affects all aspects of life and raises many concerns for safety.  But there are some ways that they can be alleviated with the help of family, friends and/or caregivers.

What are some things to do for seniors with memory problems? – The first thing is to not correct (as much as possible) or highlight their memory loss.  Following a schedule, a structure of how and when activities are performed.  Using signage throughout the house is also a method that works very well.  Adding technology like Alexa and Google Home can be used to alert and remind someone of tasks to be done.

My sweet mother-in-law just turned 97 years old.  She is independent, lives alone and is extremely active.  Last week, for her birthday I told her I was sending her 12 books to read, one for each month of her 97th year.  We spoke about the kinds of books I ordered and how I hoped she liked them all.  She was so kind and appreciative.  We spoke on this topic for about 15 minutes.

Yesterday, she called me to ask me why is she receiving so many books from me?  She had no memory of our conversation.

No matter how healthy she is, it’s very difficult to escape problems with memory issues as she ages.  Of course, severe memory issues are not inevitable, just like any muscle in your body – the more you use it the less likely you’ll lose it.

But, there’s no “cure” as of yet for general memory loss.  The best treatments available today work to slow it down.

If your senior loved one is demonstrating the kind of memory problems that are affecting his/her daily life or presenting a safety hazard, I urge you to seek the services of an Occupational Therapist to help with some memory therapy.

Should I Correct Someone With Memory Loss?

Whether or not to correct someone with memory loss depends on the severity of the problem.  If they have been diagnosed with Dementia or Alzheimers, then it’s likely not a good idea to try to correct them.  If it’s very slight memory loss (like most of us – no matter what age – have), then it’s likely the right thing to do.

When I interned as an Occupational Therapist – I was living in South Florida.  As you can probably imagine, the majority of patients in hospitals and rehab centers were elderly – and many of them had mild to severe memory problems.

The thinking back then was that if the patient said it was 1953 (when it was actually 1990) we were supposed to correct them.  If they said that their mother was coming to pick them up soon, we were supposed to remind them that their mother had passed away many years ago.

As you can probably imagine – this was not a good approach.  My poor patients became frightened, anxious and even more confused.  Thankfully, that only lasted my first year as an OT – then the approach evolved to what it is today.  Which is that if you are aware of memory problems in your elderly loved one – and they make a statement that isn’t true or they forget an event (like the conversation I had with my mom-in-law) just go along with it, let it slide and don’t make an issue of it.

At the end of the day, it serves no purpose to continuously try to correct someone with any form of slight or severe dementia.

Instead – what we (medical professionals) ended up doing a few years later was to “go along” with the memory our patients presented.

So, for example: If your mother tells you that the doctor appointment is at 2pm on Thursday – your response could be something like “Oh, I thought it was at 4pm on Wednesday – let me check because I get things mixed up sometimes.”

Or – if she mentions that her husband is coming home for dinner (but he is deceased) simply begin talking about some memories of him.  He is on her mind and in my experience, it should help her to speak about him.  Gently move the conversation to other family members, events, topics, etc.

I would recommend to ask your doctor to prescribe some therapeutic interventions with a social worker who can help you to improve your communication with someone with memory issues.

Keep To A Schedule

It’s very important to keep to a schedule and better if you can keep to the schedule that the senior person has been adhering to.

I remember years ago, we had a patient (lets call him Sam) come into our unit with mild dementia.  Although he was able to dress himself and feed himself he desperately needed to keep to his schedule.  He would get up every day at the same time, read his newspaper at the same time and watch his favorite TV shows at the same time.

But every day, around 4 pm he would walk out of the unit and sometimes, out of the facility.  After the first time – we put an alarm on his clothing to alert us if he got out again.  And he did.  So, we asked his daughter what did he do every day at 4 pm?

Her answer was “He went to the corner bar.”

So, our Recreation Therapist (who was amazing) built a “bar” of sorts in the Rec Room.  She served peanuts and juice and after about two weeks of redirecting Sam towards the Rec Room at 4 pm he began going there himself.  It was a perfect solution for him during that time.

Post Notes and Signs Everywhere

For some seniors with memory problems, posting signs and notes up are very helpful.  It’s important to know that if memory loss continues to get worse, they may be able to READ what they see but they will lose the ability to COMPREHEND what they are reading.   This is very important especially when it comes to taking medication.

In the rehab hospital I worked in, many doctors would often tell me the patient was good to go home and live independently because the doctor asked them to read their prescription instructions and they were able to do so.  But I would often counterpoint by demonstrating that the patient was not able to understand what they just read.

The types of notes you would post up would be things like…

  • Turn off the stove.
  • Lock the door.
  • Close the window.
  • Keys are in the laundry room.
  • Phone numbers (or the speed dial numbers).
  • Take your medicine at 10:00 am.

The idea is to help the senior with memory problems to read what to do and where things are.

Alexa and Google Home To The Rescue

Many have seen this very funny SNL skit on seniors attempting to use Alexa.  Although they are exaggerating the issues (for comedy) the truth is that learning to use technology is not an easy task for the elderly.  Who knows what WE will be having problems with as we get older!

But, for safety matters, technology can really be a very useful tool.

You can use Alexa and Google Home to give you verbal reminders on a daily basis.  This works well for medications, appointments and other daily tasks.   Set up Reminders on these types of tools and both you and your senior loved ones will be told when to do what!

How To Set Up Reminders in Alexa

How To Set Up Reminders in Google Home

When To Get Help For Memory Loss

A professional assessment and diagnosis by your physician is deemed necessary when the memory issues impede daily activity and/or become a safety hazard.  Some examples would be…

  • Constantly losing the house or car keys – in fact constantly losing things every day.
  • Putting clothing on incorrectly (shirts backwards – shoes on the wrong foot, etc.)
  • Forgetting to shave or shower or comb their hair.
  • Changes in cognitive skills.  My mother was very, very good with math problems.  In her last few years of life she played Sudoku every single day (and found it fairly easy), she balanced her checkbook to the penny every month very easily, she calculated measurements in recipes in her head.  But as time went on she lost that ability and no matter how hard she tried, she just couldn’t grasp it any longer.
  • Changes in perceptual skills.  This of course could also be due to visual / spatial problems but it does often accompany a decline in memory.  Some examples are inability to judge distance, missing steps on a staircase, reaching for an item on the table or counter and over or under reaching.
  • Frequent problems remembering words or pronouncing them or calling them by a wrong or made up name.  (although honestly, I do this all the time!)
  • Decreased or poor judgement.  In my years of experience this is usually the first sign of memory problems.  It can occur years before the other signs show up.

If you notice any of these signs, please make an appointment immediately with a doctor and ask for a cognitive / memory assessment.  Speak with your elderly loved one about what you are seeing and hopefully they will not argue with you and will concede to a doctor’s visit.

Other Tools To Help With Memory Loss

Other tools that you can use could include:

  • Pill dispensers
  • Locator devices
  • Motion sensor reminders
  • GPS products

I hope this information was useful for you and will help you to take care of your senior parent or other loved one.


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