As we age, memory is often a topic of discussion. We worry about if what we are going through is normal or something more. Many of us enter a moment of denial and put off going to the doctor to see what is going on. Memory impairment is caused by many things. Stress, low sodium, an illness or infection, all of this can lead to memory loss, yet, we don’t always know the difference between what is normal, temporary, or connected to a form of dementia.
Because of this uncertainty, our routine doctor’s appointments and the observations of friends and family, and even community members become a critical component in making sure we are always living well and full lives. Even as care partners, we must have a community that can help us navigate the care partner journey. This community should be made up of individuals that we trust to tell us when something seems off. Sometimes that takes an outside eye, someone not related to us, to help us see what we can’t and what our family might not tell us.
As we think about what is normal or not in aging I believe that it is important that we look at a few elements of our lives. Movement, Purpose, Stress Level, Social Connection, Diet, and Spiritual Engagement. So, in short, looking at the full person in Mind, Body, and Soul. If you start to see a change in memory in yourself or a loved one think about those categories. Has something changed? Did you recently have a change in diet? Did you go from being a 2-3 walks a day around the neighborhood, to not walking at all? Did your loved one go from praying the rosary every night at 7:00 to not praying at all? Did you suddenly have a change in your social engagements? All of this can be a sign that something is off, especially if it is abrupt, not previously discussed, or explored. It could be set on by a change in routines such as an illness or even a pandemic, but it can also mean that it might be time to explore what is going on in the brain and look into if it is the start of symptoms for one of the many types of Dementia.
Not everyone will experience memory loss as they age. Some will and some won’t. So some things to look out for…
Normal memory loss will not disrupt your life in any significant way. You will still remember how to drive home from the grocery store, be able to learn a new routine or incorporate a new element into an existing routine.
You will be able to complete tasks as you have always done. Paying bills, cleaning the house, preparing a meal, will see no changes.
Taking in new information will not be difficult for you, while it may take a smidge more effort (especially if you are in a period as mentioned above where you might have had a disruption to your sleep or diet, or are in or recovering from an infection or illness) you can learn it and recall it as needed.
Also, things like remembering the name of someone you have not seen in years or where you put your keys, if you run off to the grocery store without your list and cannot remember what you need to purchase, these experiences are also normal.
What is not normal is if there is any memory loss that impacts or disrupts your daily life. Then it could be a sign that something more is going on. It could be a form of dementia.
Dementia itself is not a diagnosis. The diagnosis will be something more specific, such as Lewy Body Dementia, Vascular Dementia, Alzheimer’s. Each form of dementia has its quirks and general progression pattern of symptoms although each person will be unique in their experience. Dementia does not only impact the brain but the body as well. And as a care partner (especially a family care partner) caring for your loved one will likely be both a gift and filled with heavy demands that lead to burnout, and further harm to yourself and possibly your loved one as well.
It is easy as care partners, to give and give and give and be so immersed in the caring role that we don’t recognize when we have gone too long on empty. And, asking for help is sometimes awkward, sometimes difficult, and sometimes feels humiliating. But, if we don’t ask for help, we run the risk of doing more harm than good and causing our health to decline faster and likely more significant than the health of the individual we are caring for each day.
Each person is going to have their limit on what they can do and give while on the care journey. When I am supporting a person who is a care partner I like to say that when you start to see a change in your mood that is the moment you should start to ask for help, don’t wait for it to start to impact your physical health. These changes can be depression, anger, exhaustion, if you are irritated all the time by small things. In these moments start to ask for help. Bring it up with that community you built, your family, your doctor. It is possible that those same elements that could be impacting your memory, are showing themselves in care as well, you are not getting enough sleep, you are coming down with a cold, you are not eating enough, or getting the nutrition you need. Instead of impacting your memory, they are impacting your mood. This is the first step to asking for help, be it from your community circle, or through hiring a professional care team.
It is important that we as care partners live 3-dimensional lives, looking at our physical, mental, spiritual, and social wellbeing. The saying, you can’t pour from an empty cup, rings loudest in care. The time to build a community that can help you through this part of your journey is important. Fill it with people you love, people who can help you mentally, physically, and spiritually. Fill it with people who will be there on your darkest day and your most joyful moment. It is not easy in today’s world to create this community, but it is important!