Memory and Independent Living

memory, independent livingA healthy brain and good memory are the keys to independent living as we age. As the daughter of an Alzheimer's disease victim, every memory lapse I experience makes me worry.  I wonder is this the first sign that I will get AD too.

While we know more about how our brains work than ever before, some myths about the aging brain persist.  The most dangerous myth is that memory problems and loss of independent living skills are a normal part of the aging process.

How does memory change in a healthy brain as we age?

  • It takes longer to store information. To update an old saying, "old dogs CAN learn new tricks" it just takes longer. An older person should allow more time to learn a new task and spend extra time repeating or rehearsing the task to firmly store it in memory.
  • It takes longer to retrieve information. Memory misfires where you cannot recall a date or a name right away become more common as we age. Use memory aids like lists for important but less frequently needed information. Try not to get stressed about failing to recall information; stress will make it harder for you to remember.
  • Distractions are harder to cope with as you age. Stop multitasking. Recent studies have debunked multitasking for all ages.  Our brains can only handle tasks in sequence, one at a time.  Older brains have a harder time blocking out distractions.  When having an important discussion with your parent create a quiet environment where you can both pay attention more easily.

Three tips to preserve memory and independent living skills as you and your parent age

    1. Follow heart healthy guidelines for eating and exercise.  Good overall health is the best way to protect your memory.
    2. Stay engaged with other people.  Volunteering, continuing to work and having an active social life are good ways to protect your memory.
    3. Learn new things. Reading, playing cards, learning a language and learning to play a musical instrument have been your brain power to avoid losing it.

Memory changes that may lead to problems with independent living

  • Mood swings in a formerly even tempered person
  • Lapses in judgment like sharing personal information with strangers or spending money in uncharacteristic ways
  • Poor short term memory on an ongoing basis like asking repeated questions.
  • Problems completing daily tasks like balancing the checkbook
  • Loss of vocabulary especially common nouns and talking around missing words

Have memory problems eroded your family member's independent living skills?  How do you cope?

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--Janice Wallace

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