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What’s Normal Senior Forgetfulness? What’s Not? Helping Your Clients Determine When They Need to Ask

Apr 10, 2018 by Anonymous

Forgetfulness is a common part of getting older. Our brains can be trained to work more efficiently—but just like muscles in the rest of our body, there is an element of “use it or lose it.” In general, forgetfulness is normal, but memory gaps can be frustrating. For young people, it’s easier to brush off lapses in memory, but seniors can feel like forgetfulness is the beginning of something much larger.

If you’re in a field where you advise and help clients caring for an older adult, they will likely voice their concerns about changes they’re noticing in their loved one’s memory. But if you can advise them to take a step back and evaluate the situation dispassionately, they’ll be able to decide if it’s mere forgetfulness, or something to be concerned about.

The New Normal

The first thing to keep in mind is that forgetfulness doesn’t always indicate something sinister. In fact, there are common and non-threatening reasons why it’s harder to remember things as we age. For example, the American Psychological Association notes that older people often experience a decrease in blood flow to the brain, which may cause memory gaps.

 Another common cause is that the body produces lower levels of the hormones and proteins that protect and repair brain cells. Neither of these is necessarily a cause for alarm. Everyone, no matter their age, faces some level of forgetfulness.

So what’s common and what’s worrisome? It’s helpful to start by thinking about what is considered normal, most of which you’ve no doubt seen with seniors you love, or have even experienced yourself (even if you’re not a senior). Examples include:

  • Occasionally forgetting where they left objects that they use often.
  • Walking into a room and forgetting why they entered.
  • Cycling through several family members’ names before saying the correct one.
  • Having the “on the tip of my tongue” sensation.
  • Occasionally missing an appointment or meeting on their schedule.
  • Having a harder time retrieving information that they just learned.
  • Being unable to explain things quickly and with precise details.

When a client mentions their concern about a senior experiencing these conditions, you can reassure them that there is most likely nothing to be worried about. But that begs the question of when should they be concerned? There are signs that family members need to watch out for, especially if the following red flags are recurrent. For example, are there basic tasks or activities that a senior routinely has a difficult time accomplishing, such as finding their keys, paying bills on time or meeting appointments? Have they become disoriented or lost in a familiar environment? Do they frequently misuse, mispronounce, or garble words in conversation?

Even more serious signs include difficulty controlling their emotions when making decisions, or a tendency to act out inappropriately, such as in a restaurant or interacting with store workers. Excessive memory loss or the inability to recognize loved ones is another red flag.

Starting the Conversation

Talking with a senior about their mental health and forgetfulness can feel intimidating, but your clients don’t have to resign themselves to a negative experience that results in conflict. Remind them that when starting the conversation, the senior shouldn’t feel backed into a corner or as if a decision has already been made. Actively listening to his or her responses is always a step forward on the path to better understanding. Remind your clients that a good reason to have these conversations is to garner a baseline for what “normal” means for their loved one, which can help them identify changes down the road.

If your client’s loved one is experiencing serious signs of mental or cognitive decline, resources that can help them through the process are available. Comfort Keepers offers a resource guide titled, “From Head to Toe: A Practical Guide to Seniors Mental Health and Well-Being” is available for free download. 

This Comfort Keepers guide offers practical strategies and tactics for families. Expect to learn how to handle the "memory loss" conversation with a loved one; discover mental exercises and games that can help seniors keep mentally active; and get the scoop on healthy recipes to boost physical and mental health. Download the guide by clicking here.

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