As people age, experiencing some forgetfulness is normal and to be expected. Lapses in memory occur throughout the lifespan but often become more frequent and pronounced in old age. This is considered normal age-related cognitive decline, and it is different from Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. However, sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between the two, especially if dementia is in its early stages. If there is uncertainty and concern surrounding one’s decline in cognitive functioning, it is important to consult a doctor.
Normal forgetfulness. Some normal age-related memory difficulties are:
- Transience & Absentmindedness. Transience occurs when the brain replaces old memories to make room for new ones. Absentmindedness refers to inattentive and forgetful behavior, such as forgetting an appointment.
- Blocking. Blocking refers to a temporary inability to retrieve a memory or information.
- Misattribution. Misattribution occurs when people remember information correctly, but incorrectly recall the source of that information.
- Suggestibility. Suggestibility is the quality of being inclined to believe false but plausible information, and then fill in the gaps of memories with false information.
- Memory Bias. This is a cognitive bias that either enhances or impairs the recall of a memory. Memory biases can prevent recall, affect the amount of time it takes for a memory to be recalled, and/or alter the content of a memory.
Dementia. Dementia is the term used to define a set of symptoms, including impairment in memory, judgment, and other thinking skills. People with dementia may find it difficult to remember familiar names, words, and tasks, as well as lose track of simple things and misplacing their possessions. Dementia gets worse over time, and the progression varies greatly depending on the person and type of dementia. Typically, it is more difficult for people with dementia to recall recent memories; distant memories (e.g., childhood memories) stay intact longer. If you’re uncertain about your or a loved one’s symptoms, schedule an appointment with a doctor.
Tips for communicating with people with dementia:
- Display a positive mood in a pleasant and respectful manner. Use facial expressions, tone of voice, and physical touch (when appropriate) to convey your message and show your affection. Even though people with dementia may forget names and places, they can still differentiate between people who care about them and those who do not. If you genuinely care and are trying to help, he or she will probably know. The importance of bedside manner cannot be overstated when working with this population.
- Make sure you have the person’s attention. Address the person by his or her name and use nonverbal cues to help keep them focused. Maintain eye contact.
- Refer to other people, such as friends and relatives, by their names. Avoid pronouns like “he,” “she,” and “they” during conversation.
- State your message clearly. Use simple words and avoid being lengthy. Speak slowly and refrain from raising your voice higher and louder; instead, pitch your voice lower. If the person doesn’t understand the first time, use the same wording to repeat your message or question. If he or she still doesn’t understand, wait a few minutes and rephrase the question. Use encouragement. Do not reveal frustration or impatience.
- Break down activities so they are manageable. Someone with dementia has a hard time with mental juggling. Use visual cues to encourage your patient to do what he or she can, gently reminding them of steps they tend to forget and assisting them with steps they are no longer able to accomplish.
- Reassure, encourage, show affection, and give praise. Show that you care and want to understand and help. People with dementia often feel confused, anxious, and unsure of themselves. Remember that their emotions are real, even though they may not be able to express them as well as they used to.
- Be patient and give them time to open up. It is important to establish trust. If you’re lucky, they may open up to you and share their personal, fascinating stories of a different time.