Memory loss does more than forgetting recent conversations or repeating things that have already been said. It can affect multiple aspects of someone’s life, and a caregiver may be essential to their well-being and even their safety.
“If your loved one was just diagnosed with dementia, it can be overwhelming and very scary, and you may wonder what’s going to happen,” says Nathan E. Goldstein, MD, palliative care specialist at Mount Sinai Beth Israel.
If you are a caregiver for someone with memory loss—such as from dementia—your goals are to assist in long-term planning, adapt daily routines, and provide companionship, emotional support, and structure—all while preserving their quality of life and dignity.
Exactly how much support your loved one needs will vary based on the severity of their condition. “Memory loss can often be a progressive illness that starts with just forgetting a few things and progresses to worsening problems with memory, and ultimately problems [with] function,” says Dr. Goldstein.
Challenges Caused by Memory Loss
Understanding what challenges to expect can help reduce stress as a caregiver. You can more easily anticipate issues and be proactive about handling them, and you’ll be less likely to blame yourself when new symptoms appear.
These are common challenges you might face as a caregiver of someone with memory loss:
Daily challenges include difficulty eating, dressing, and grooming on their own; the loss of ability to drive or walk; appetite loss or reduction; and possibly challenges with bladder and bowel function.
Safety concerns include wandering (especially in the case of Alzheimer’s disease); forgetting how to use household appliances or utensils; forgetting to turn things off; loss of balance; and changes to vision, hearing, sensitivity to temperature, or depth perception. All of these may result in an increased risk of falling, breaking objects, starting fires, burning themselves, or taking the wrong medications or dose.
Communication challenges include struggling to recall vocabulary; repeating familiar words; describing objects instead of calling them by their name; losing their train of thought; organizing sentences illogically; speaking less frequently; or using nonverbal gestures more than words. Repeating the same questions is one of the most common symptoms Dr. Goldstein hears from caregivers.
Emotional challenges include the pain, frustration, or embarrassment of forgetting, needing reminders, or losing autonomy. “The more somebody forgets, and the more we remind them of their forgetfulness, the harder it is and the more pain it causes,” says Theresa Altilio, ACSW, LCSW, clinical social worker at Mount Sinai Beth Israel.
How to Help a Loved One with Memory Loss
Once you can anticipate challenges, it’s easier to come up with an action plan as a caregiver.
With mild memory loss, you can help your loved one with simple day-to-day logistics. You can help the keep track of their appointments or events, remember words and names, manage finances and pay bills, keep track of medication, plan for the future, and provide or arrange transportation.
You can help keep the memories alive by reminiscing together and looking at pictures together, suggests Altilio.
If memory loss progresses, especially in the case of Alzheimer's disease, caregiving may be more hands on. You can help them adapt their routines, create structure, assist in dressing and grooming, cook and get groceries, and provide engaging activities to prevent frustration and wandering. At this point, a daily care plan—which includes basic routines and schedules—can help provide structure and take advantage of the time of day your loved one is most alert or active.
In severe cases of memory loss or late stages of Alzheimer’s, you as the caregiver may need to provide more constant care. You can help them monitor eating and drinking water to prevent malnutrition or dehydration, monitor weight, set a toilet schedule and monitor bowel movements, improve circulation by adjusting their position every couple of hours, bathe and groom, perform gentle exercises to prevent “joint freezing,” assist in oral and bodily hygiene to prevent infections, and monitor for signs of pain or illness.
Regardless of what kind of assistance your loved one needs, it’s important for you to find ways to cope with caregiver stress, and to not feel guilty for feeling frustrated sometimes.
“It’s really difficult to accurately explain the frustration of caring for someone with dementia,” says Kenn Voegele, caregiver and activist. “It’s almost impossible not to yell, not to scream, not to walk out the door, and feel like, ‘I’m never going back.’”
“It’s important to remember that all of these emotions and reactions are normal, and that all caregivers feel this when caring for someone with memory loss,” says Dr. Goldstein.
Prioritizing your self-care as a caregiver can help you stay physically and emotionally healthy and strong, which can help you provide the best care to your loved one.