It’s an unfortunate fact that growing old will take its toll on the mind. Even the sharpest minds can begin to struggle with details and memories, whilst some older people will struggle with conditions such as dementia which can have an even more significant impact.
To watch an older relative struggling with their memory can be upsetting for you, and the situation can be very scary and confusing for them. How, then, can you help?
Memories will fade faster if they’re ignored and not used. You’ll know this from your own experience. You remember the key details – big dates and events from your life, like the birth of a child or a time that you won an award. What’s more, the brain remembers negative details far more often than it focuses on the positive, which is why it’s all too easy to think back to a time when you completely embarrassed yourself (long after everyone else has forgotten the occasion), yet so difficult to remember when you did something that really impressed people.
You might have experienced a time when you looked back at an old photograph, and a day that you’d completely forgotten becomes a clear memory once again. The things that you don’t remember are not necessarily completely gone, but are stored deep inside your mind if they’re not called upon.
The same thing happens when you age. You can help to bring back happy memories and to keep an elderly loved one connected with the real world and their friends and family, by having regular conversations about the past. Photographs work as an excellent trigger, and there are even flash cards available that mention a certain topic such as ‘beach’ or ‘flowers’. You don’t even need the cards, necessarily – just start a conversation by asking “Do you remember the last time you went to the beach?” and see where the conversation takes you!
Bear in mind that people with dementia and some other age-related conditions cannot access those memories as though they’re in the past. To them, something that happened thirty years ago might be their present day. An 80 year old woman can be entirely convinced that she’s still 30 years old, and as a result modern technologies (which she can’t remember existing at the time) can be absolutely terrifying. She might not know that her husband died 10 years ago, because as far as she’s concerned they’ve just married, and she might forget that she has a child at all. Some conditions take people back into their memories, and sometimes this is the best place for them to be.
Be aware of an older person’s current state. Don’t call them a liar or tell them that they’re wrong. In some cases, as much as it hurts you, it can be helpful to leave an older person believing that they’re still 30. Be gentle however you broach a subject – some adult children find it easier to introduce themselves as family friends, than to confuse an aging parent by explaining that they’re a son or daughter.
Don’t get frustrated if an older person is struggling to recall a memory, or if they seem to be making things up. If you fill in any gaps for them, you’re reducing their need to use their own memories. If someone is pausing to think back to what happened, leave them to it and let them take their time.
As well as the aforementioned flash cards, brain training games and apps can help people to keep their minds active. Card games and jigsaws are also beneficial – anything that involves a bit of thought and concentration, without becoming too stressful!