Forgetfulness in Older Adults: What’s Normal and What’s Not

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An older adult you know – a parent, a grandparent, a spouse, a sibling, or a neighbor – is forgetful. Is it just a normal part of aging or should you be worried?

Different levels of forgetfulness

According to the National Institute on Aging, forgetfulness can be a normal part of aging. As people get older, they may notice that it takes them longer to learn new things, they don’t remember information as well as they did, or they lose things like their glasses. These are signs of mild forgetfulness, not serious memory problems.

If memory or thinking problems are more significant than that, it may be a sign of mild cognitive impairment (MCI). For instance, the person loses things often, or they forget to go to events or appointments, or they have more trouble coming up with words than other people of the same age.

Mild cognitive impairment has no single cause. Conditions like diabetes, depression, and stroke may increase a person’s risk for MCI. People with MCI are generally still able to take care of themselves and go about their daily activities using memory tools like daily to-do lists.

The symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are more serious than MCI. With dementia, memory problems are more pronounced. There may also be other symptoms like personality and behavior changes, perceptual problems, disorientation, and language difficulties.

People with MCI don’t necessarily go on to develop dementia, although they’re somewhat more at risk than people without MCI.

When to be concerned about forgetfulness

When someone’s forgetfulness has progressed to the point that it puts them at risk, it’s time to be concerned. Here are some signs to watch for:

  • They’re forgetting what medications to take when (or forgetting to take them entirely)
  • They’re doing risky things like leaving stove elements on or making poor judgments
  • They’re frequently forgetting to pay bills, putting them at financial risk
  • They’ve wandered away from home and couldn’t find their way back until someone helped them
  • Their forgetfulness has caused them to withdraw socially (social isolation can contribute to further cognitive decline)

These could be signs of dementia, but they could also be caused by other medical conditions which are treatable. That’s why it’s important for the person to be assessed medically.

If the memory loss isn’t amenable to treatment and the person’s safety remains at risk, it may be time to consider moving somewhere meals are cooked for them, their medications are monitored, they have opportunities to make new friends, and help is available 24/7. In that case, a senior living community is likely the best option.

View our free guide, Just the Facts: Memory Care

Reasons the warning signs may be hard to spot

The warning signs listed above are not always easy to see. Here are a few reasons why:

  • You don’t see the person in situations where they’re having trouble. For instance, if it’s your parent and you live out-of-town, you may have limited opportunities to observe problems that may not surface in long-distance phone conversations.
  • The person may downplay or deny there’s an issue. Maybe they don’t see that there’s a problem. Or maybe they’re aware of it, but don’t want others to know they’re struggling, worried they’ll be seen as incapable and forced to give up control of their lives.
  • You may be the one who’s reluctant to acknowledge there’s a problem. Perhaps you’re simply hoping things will “work out”. Or you don’t feel right “interfering” in their lives. Or you’re worried that if there’s a problem, you’re going to be the one who’ll have to do something about it (adding to already significant demands in your own life).

Keep in mind that spotting problems now may well prevent a crisis later. And that’s better for everyone involved. Dig deeper in casual conversations, if you can. Try to be curious instead of putting the person on the spot. Look for opportunities to drop by their home for a visit. It may give you a better sense of how well they’re really coping.

If you’re uncertain whether they might benefit from a move to a senior living community, check out our free guide, Just the Facts: Memory Care. See for yourself how a memory care community can help a loved one with a cognitive impairment – contact us to schedule a tour and learn more.

download our memory care guide

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