How to support older people who are losing their memory?

After age 65, our memory sometimes plays tricks on us. But when we have gone beyond the stage of simple “nonsense”, daily life becomes complicated and the quality of life can even suffer. Fortunately, there are several solutions that make everyday life easier. We take stock with Brigitte Perraud, founder of the Alzheimer Aidants association and Alexandra Derrien, neuropsychologist.

Memory loss is a major concern for older people and their loved ones, because it can  affect the quality of daily life and cause great emotional distress . Fortunately, appropriate support and adapted strategies make it possible to preserve the autonomy and dignity of the people concerned for as long as possible! Insights from Brigitte Perraud, founder of the Alzheimer Aidants association and Alexandra Derrien, neuropsychologist within the association and the neurology department of Sainte-Musse hospital, in Toulon.

What are the causes of this memory loss?

Memory loss in older adults can be a normal process of aging , but it can also be a sign of more serious health problems that require medical attention. Indeed, it is completely normal for certain cognitive functions – including memoryto deteriorate with age . In question ? Cognitive reserve becomes depleted (the brain's ability to resist brain damage), the number of neurons decreases in certain regions of the brain, and neurotransmitter production slows, which can affect the transmission of information in the brain.

Some medical conditions common in older adults, such as stroke , infections , nutritional deficiencies , or metabolic disorders , can also affect memory. Without forgetting neurodegenerative diseases which   progressively affect memory and many cognitive functions (such as vascular dementia, fronto-temporal dementia, Alzheimer's disease , dementia with Lewy bodies or mixed dementia). 

Age-related memory loss can affect different types of memory, but episodic memory is usually the most affected . As the name suggests, it concerns the storage and retrieval of specific events in daily life. But other types of memory , such as semantic memory (knowledge of facts and concepts) and procedural memory (memory for skills and procedures), can also be affected by aging, but usually to a lesser extent. .

Good to know: Memory deficits associated with aging can vary from person to person and are often influenced by factors such as general health, lifestyle and cognitive habits .

Can we help people who suffer from neurodegenerative diseases to regain their memory?

Neurodegenerative dementias are unfortunately inevitable... As our experts explain to us, there is no treatment to "cure" patients who gradually lose their memory, their ability to reason, to express themselves, etc. It is therefore not possible to restore forgotten memories , but there are strategic approaches to slow cognitive decline and preserve memory as long as possible: 

  • Non-drug approaches such as occupational therapy , music therapy , art therapy or  movement therapy can help maintain cognitive abilities, boost memory and improve the emotional well-being of people with dementia.
  • Being  in a safe and stimulating environment can also help people with dementia feel more comfortable and function better. This may include simplifying the environment to reduce confusion, using visual cues, and establishing a structured routine.
  • Regular, appropriate exercise  can also help improve blood flow to the brain, reduce the risk of cognitive decline, and improve the mood and general well-being of sick older adults.  Not to mention that a healthy, balanced diet , rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and omega-3 fatty acids, can help maintain brain health and support cognitive functions.
  • Finally, maintaining strong social bonds and engaging  in collective activities  helps stimulate the brain and prevent isolation, which is beneficial for patients' mental and emotional health. 

Although these approaches cannot reverse the damage caused by dementia and help patients recover their memory, they improve their quality of life and maintain their cognitive abilities wherever possible.

How can we help older people who have memory lapses to bring back their memories?

Is your mother, father, grandparents or anyone close to you starting to have memory problems? Know that there will probably be no going back ... But these few tips should help you best support their memory: 

  • Establish daily routines and regular activities to help the person stay grounded in the present and strengthen their short-term memory.
  • Use visual reminders . Photos, videos and other visual keepsakes can help bring back many memories. “The simple sight of a photo can be an opportunity to discuss the associated story and revive the memories of your loved one for a brief moment,” notes Brigitte Perraud. 
  • Evoke multisensory memories . By engaging different senses, such as hearing, sight and/or touch, you create an environment conducive to recalling memories. For example, you can listen to favorite music from their youth, watch videos of past events or handle familiar objects. 
  • Ask open-ended questions . Rather than asking closed questions that require a simple "yes" or "no" answer, ask open-ended questions that encourage the person to share details and anecdotes. This applies to very logistical questions concerning food or clothing, but also to more personal questions concerning the person's current state of mind or past.
  • Avoid stress at all costs . Perhaps surprisingly, stress can make memory problems worse . When interacting with loved ones, make sure the environment is calm and be relaxed: avoid putting pressure on people to remember particular events.
  • Encourage emotional connections.  As Brigitte Perraud explains to us, memories are often associated with emotions. By expressing empathy, interest and affection, you can therefore establish an emotional connection which can make it easier to recall memories during discussions. 
  • Show patience and kindness.  Memory loss can be frustrating for those affected, so encourage and praise them for their efforts and progress, even if it is small. Gentle, positive repetition can help strengthen memories and associations!

Caring for a parent who is starting to lose their memory can put a strain on your nerves... If possible, try not to set the person up for failure and avoid conflicts. If necessary, seek support, because it is not always easy to accept that loved ones are gradually leaving our reality. Brigitte Perraud.

Identify signs of cognitive impairment

“Some people are very good at pretending and we don't always notice that they are starting to lose their memory,” warns Alexandra Derrien. But if the memory loss seems to get worse and is associated with other symptoms such as loss of balance, difficulty expressing yourself or carrying out daily activities such as cooking or dressing, it is important to quickly consult a doctor who can redirect you to a memory specialist to obtain an accurate diagnosis and appropriate advice The earlier the diagnosis, the more measures can be put in place to delay the progression of possible neurocognitive diseases ."

Are you just starting to have memory lapses? Some practical daily tips...

If you or a loved one are starting to have memory lapses, these few tips can help you make everyday life easier and maintain some independence: 

  • Declutter your environment . By avoiding accumulation, you limit distractions. Also remember to always store your belongings in the same place, especially your keys, your wallet or your phone, but also your glasses, your remote control, etc. This way, you will find them more easily!
  • List important information.  Use lists so you don't forget any of your daily tasks or activities. This can include shopping lists, to-do lists, reminders for medical or beauty appointments, emergency phone number lists, etc. And so you don't forget your medications, invest in a weekly pill organizer.
  • Use auditory or visual memory aids . Use visual reminders such as post-it notes, set audible alarms or apps on your phone, etc. If necessary, set up calendars and whiteboards at home on which you write down important information.
  • Establish simple routines . “A morning routine can help you automate certain tasks. But you can also adopt routines at lunchtime or before going to bed,” advises Alexandra Derrien. 
  • Make associations of ideas . Associate new information with familiar items or existing memories to make it easier to remember. For example, associate a new name with a physical characteristic or a common interest. If appropriate, use other mnemonic techniques such as repetition or visualization to remember important information.
  • Practice concentration and mindfulness.  Focus on one task at a time and practice being fully present in the moment to reduce distractions, register information more easily, and promote focus.
  • Adopt a healthy lifestyle . Make sure you sleep well, eat healthily, exercise regularly, and learn to manage your stress. As Brigitte Perraud points out, sleep, diet, physical exercise (walking, swimming, yoga, etc.) and stress are all factors that can have an impact on memory and cognitive functions. 
  • Play memory  or board games that stimulate the memory and brain, such as puzzles, crosswords or sudoku. Also remember to cultivate your social relationships: these stimulate the mind and give a feeling of belonging to a community. 

Over time, these tips will become automatic actions that will improve your ability to manage your memory lapses and maintain more reliable memories!

Our advice for communicating best with your loved ones who suffer from memory problems

Communicating effectively with people who suffer from memory problems is sometimes a challenge... Even more so if the people in question suffer from a neurodegenerative disease! 

  • Patience is essential  to communicate effectively: adopt a caring attitude, even if the conversation may be repetitive or difficult to follow. Respect the person's pace and don't rush them. “If necessary, take breaks regularly during the conversation,” advises Brigitte Perraud.
  • When talking to the person with memory problems, make sure you make eye contact and use simple, clear language  : avoid long, complicated sentences, and give them enough time to respond.
  • Gestures and facial expressions can help reinforce the message you are trying to communicate. Use them to accompany your words and to help the person understand what you are saying. 
  • Focus on moments of connection and sharing , rather than on perfect communication. Expressions of affection, smiles and gestures of tenderness are more important than we think.
  • Listen to what the person has to say , even if what they say may seem confusing or incoherent. Show interest in what they are saying and respond appropriately: avoid contradicting or correcting the person if they make mistakes or forget details.

Good to know: People with dementia can feel a range of emotions , including confusion, frustration and sadness. Show compassion and accept their emotions without judging them, knowing that they can move from one emotion to another in a matter of minutes. “ Be prepared to adapt as the disease progresses and the person's communication skills deteriorate. What works today may not work tomorrow, so be flexible in your approach,” warns Alexandra Derrien. 

Family caregivers: don’t forget yourself!

We can never repeat it enough, to take care of the health of others, you must also take care of your own health (physical and mental)! In other words, if you are supporting someone who is starting to lose their memory, learn to delegate and set aside time for rest and relaxation. If you feel overwhelmed, seek help from professionals or support groups