Aging Happens! Here’s How to Talk With Your Loved One About Memory Lapses

Get your parent the help they need with sensitivity and reassurance

For the third time this week, your mom is fixated on finding the doily she sold at the garage sale five years ago. You think, “Maybe it’s time to talk with an aging specialist.”

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It’s time, according to geriatric medicine physician Ardeshir Hashmi, MD.

It’s never too early to slow memory loss

“Research tells us that earlier intervention is critical to preserving memory and independence,” Dr. Hashmi says. “Lifestyle changes are vital but need time to take effect, so the key is getting started early.”

Medications may help, but they’re only 2% of the solution. Their job is mostly to stop memory problems from getting worse.

The other 98% is making lifestyle adjustments. These brain-healthy modifications can improve memory:

  • Aerobic activity
  • Socialization
  • Eating a healthy diet, like the Mediterranean diet
  • Finding a sense of purpose
  • Getting enough quality sleep

How to address memory problems with your loved one

Your loved one may not have noticed any memory problems. But if you’re concerned, it’s time to act. Dr. Hashmi recommends these strategies:

Provide reassurance. A big fear is that memory changes are indicative of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. But that’s not necessarily the case.

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“Reassure your parent that you forget things, too, and emphasize that the only way to get answers is to visit a geriatrician,” Dr. Hashmi suggests. “You can even downplay the memory stuff. Tell them the doctor will provide a comprehensive exam where brain health is only one component.”

Focus on the positive. Losing their independence is likely another of your parent’s biggest concerns. Present a visit with a geriatrician as a way to ensure long-term independence.

Dr. Hashmi suggests phrases like, “This is important because I want you to remain in your home like you are now.”

And alleviate your parent’s concerns about having to take yet more medications with statements like, “We don’t want you to be on more meds than you need, and medication probably isn’t even necessary. But let’s see what options are available to help preserve your thinking and memory.”

Your parent might even leave the visit with less medication than they go in with. “Taking away medications which might be impairing memory is often part of the solution,” Dr. Hashmi adds.

Set expectations. Emphasize that you want your parent to preserve or even improve their memory. “Your parent may be scared — let them know the goal is to make things better, not necessarily to find out what’s wrong,” Dr. Hashmi says.

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Discuss what to expect during the evaluation, which is not painful and will likely include:

  • Exercises to evaluate memory
  • Blood tests to rule out vitamin D and B12 deficiencies, which go hand-in-hand with aging, and measure thyroid levels
  • An MRI (if necessary) to help get a snapshot of current brain health

Tips to help caregivers cope with memory loss

“It can be taxing for even the most patient person to deal with a parent who repeatedly asks the same thing,” says Dr. Hashmi. “But patience is a big ally for caregivers, so stick with it.”

Some other tips to help you help your aging parent:

  1. Don’t go it alone: Some 40 million older adults and family members in the U.S. share your experiences. Connect with them to feel less alone and swap strategies for handling specific scenarios.
  2. Emphasize it’s not their fault: If your parent has Alzheimer’s disease (or another form of dementia), remember that it’s not them doing or saying things. It’s the disease. If your parent becomes rude or angry, remember that the disease is talking to someone it doesn’t know.
  3. Redirect them: Often the short-term memory is gone, but your loved one can remember the old days. Use this to your advantage. Talk about the past or look at old pictures together to help them shift their focus to the present.
  4. Lose the argument: If you’ve tried reorienting your parent, but they still insist they’re in Canada when you’re actually in California, let it go. At the moment, this is your loved one’s reality. It’s more helpful to meet them where they are than insist that they’re wrong.

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