Interviewer: Yesterday, Mom remembered exactly who you were, and today, she doesn't even remember your name. How to deal with a parent's memory loss, coming up next on The Scope.
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Interviewer: We're talking today with Kyle Bradford Jones, a family physician at the University of Utah. The topic of memory loss in a parent is something that not many people talk about because it's really emotionally difficult when your mom or your dad suddenly just doesn't remember who you are and you're kind of a stranger to them. Emotionally, how stressful is that, do you think?
Dr. Jones: Oh, that's huge. Like you mentioned, that's really hard for all of us to handle that. And with memory loss in our parents or in the elderly, it's kind of what you expect, what's called cognitive aging.
Interviewer: So are there specific signs or symptoms to look for in Mom or Dad as they are losing their memory? Are there emotional signs? Are there physical signs? What can you look out for?
Dr. Jones: As we age, like you said, we tend to lose a little bit of our memory. Sometimes, we lose what's called executive function, so our organizational skills, handling finances, losing our train of thought, and this is fairly common. Now, this tends to be worse in stressful or uncomfortable situations or even situations where it's fast-paced, things like getting on the freeway while driving.
One of the other ways that memory loss comes on is through delirium, which basically is an abrupt onset of confusion, behavioral outbursts and sometimes what's called sundowning, where this tends to get worse at night. As you get more disoriented, it's darker. And these are usually caused by things that can be reversed, so medications, infection, very commonly, a urinary tract infection or a change in environment.
Now, the one that we're all scared of is dementia. Alzheimer's is one form of dementia, but there are multiple ones. How dementia is different from these is it's very similar to cognitive aging, but you also add that you lose some of what's called your activities of daily living. So you lose the hygiene ability to shower or brush your teeth. You lose basic housekeeping. Sometimes, you become disoriented. Like you say, you may not recognize people because you think it's a different time in your life.
One of the biggest things to watch for and one of the first things that you can notice, look at their finger and their toenails. Are they able to trim their nails? If it's your mother and she always painted her nails, has that changed? That's one of the first things to go and so that's a big one that you can just keep an eye on.
Interviewer: So, obviously, as a caregiver, I'm seeing the frustration in her eyes when she doesn't remember who I am. Obviously, I am emotional and distressed, but how do I help her through that?
Dr. Jones: It can be very difficult. Offering some of that emotional support is a big thing. Coming frequently, if they see you once and can't quite remember you, it does better if you come multiple times and kind of get that repetition. Now, if they're not quite to that extent, different supports you can do, as we age and lose some of our memory are reminders of appointments or different things that you need to do, whether that's in person or over the phone or setting alarms to help remind them to do things.
Making lists so that they can refer back to that makes a big difference. They feel a little bit more independent and in control and are able to kind of overcome some of these changes in their memory. Other things, exercise and diet are huge. That increases the blood flow to your brain and makes a big difference with how your brain is functioning and how well you can handle your memory as well as some of this functional loss. But also controlling any health problems they have. If they have high blood pressure, if they have diabetes, making sure these are controlled makes a big difference.
Interviewer: You mentioned earlier that coming in to see your parent as they're losing their memory really helps them remember you better. Is it a good idea to maybe have Mom or Dad stay with you then at that point? When you see them on a regular basis, on a daily basis, does that help or is it just safer to have them with a health expert at that point?
Dr. Jones: It certainly can help. Obviously, many children are caring for their parents as they age and go through dementia and different things. And that takes a huge toll on the caregivers because it's basically a full-time job. And so that definitely can help in terms of orienting them and trying to bring them back to the time that they're in.
However, once the disease progresses, it won't necessarily do much. Basically, in terms of deciding when they should go to a nursing home or other assisted living type of situation, it's almost based more on the caregiver or the child. If you get to the point where you simply cannot do this anymore, whether it's physically, emotionally, financially, it's a good time to try to get them into a more controlled environment.
Interviewer: So coping with a parent's memory loss obviously is not an easy thing to do. Does it ever get better?
Dr. Jones: In some ways, that burden is never quite lifted off the children because you're concerned about your parents. Obviously, they did so much to raise you that you feel that obligation to care for them. And especially if you move them to someplace like a nursing home. Sometimes, that feels like failure, but there's only so much you can do. It is not a failure, and sometimes they need that extra support, and so once it gets to that point, even though it's emotionally difficult, it can be very important for them to get the care that they need.
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