What Are the Differences Between Normal Forgetfulness and Dementia?
When an older family member starts displaying signs of forgetfulness, it can be worrisome for caregivers and adult children. You might start wondering whether forgetting phone numbers, misplacing keys, and struggling to recall important events is a sign of something serious or just a normal part of the aging process. If your loved one has a family history of Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia, even mild memory issues might be concerning. While only a doctor can diagnose actual health issues, recognizing some signs and symptoms can help you determine whether your loved one is experiencing normal forgetfulness or may have dementia.
Memory and Daily Living
In general, seniors who can handle basic everyday tasks without forgetting how to do them but occasionally need more time to remember specific steps of a process are aging normally. Having to look up a familiar recipe to recall how much basil to use or what temperature to set the oven to would be normal. A senior who walks into the kitchen to cook and completely forgets to make something or doesn't remember how to use a stove might be displaying signs of dementia. Seniors with dementia might also have difficulty following a regular conversation, while someone experiencing normal aging may forget details when explaining an event but won't completely lose track of the entire discussion.
Using Memory Tools and Reminders
For memory loss related to standard aging, memory tools and reminders are typically extremely helpful. Calendars, telephone books, and to-do lists often quickly jog the memory of seniors who are aging normally. So even if your loved one doesn't remember a friend's phone number or what time an appointment takes place, a written or digital reminder should help. If it doesn't, that may be a sign of a more serious memory problem. Missed appointments, unpaid bills, and household necessities such as food or toilet paper not being adequately stocked can all be indicators of dementia-related memory loss.
Remembering Details Under Stress
Stress and anxiety can cause temporary lapses in memory even for the healthiest seniors. When those lapses branch out to cover extremely familiar subjects, such as a spouse's name, that could signal the onset of dementia. Normal stress-induced memory loss also shouldn't cause a senior to become unable to recognize loved ones. Staying both physically and mentally active can help reduce stress and make this type of memory loss less likely.
Personality and Memory Changes
Being unable to recall important information or forgetting small details can be frustrating for many seniors, but it shouldn't cause full-on personality changes. Significant changes in behavior are a sign of possible dementia. If your parent is experiencing anxiety or depression about small-scale memory loss, talking to a therapist might help.
While many seniors forget a name or detail occasionally, they should be able to recall the information better the next time. Seniors with dementia have trouble retaining learned information, so if a parent repeatedly forgets the same thing, this can signal the onset of memory loss. Seniors with dementia also may have trouble describing when and where they have been experiencing forgetfulness. If your parent can describe specific situations and give examples of forgetting things, those incidents are probably just part of getting older.
Other Memory Problems
Sometimes forgetfulness isn't caused by dementia or part of standard aging. Strokes, infections, head injuries, and some medications can initiate temporary or long-term memory loss. In many cases, forgetfulness caused by an injury or illness can be treated.
In general, the main criteria for whether a senior is experiencing normal forgetfulness or dementia is whether the lapses are debilitating. If occasional forgetfulness isn't impacting your loved one's ability to function or affecting relationships with friends and family members, then it probably isn't dementia. A visit to a primary care provider is always a safe option if there are lingering concerns about your loved one. Brightview Senior Living has communities designed for dementia residents as well as active living communities where healthy seniors with occasional memory lapses can thrive. Find a community that meets your family's needs using our online tool.