How to support a loved one with memory loss

Does someone you love suffer from memory loss or dementia? Here are some simple tips on how to start supporting them.

Head and shoulders shot of Bruce Willis wearing a black shirt looking at the cameraCredit: Shutterstock / Denis Makarenko
The family of actor Bruce Willis recently revealed he has been diagnosed with dementia

Since actor Bruce Willis’s family revealed that he has been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia last month, his wife Emma Hemming Willis has expressed her dismay at the US paparazzi yelling at and pestering her husband for comment, photos and videos.

She also provided some insight into the challenges that families face. Speaking in a recent Instagram video, she said: “If you are looking after someone with dementia, you know how difficult and stressful it can be to get them out into the world and just to navigate them safely, even just to get a cup of coffee.”

The news of Willis’s diagnosis has led to many more people seeking information from the Alzheimer’s Society. The UK charity says it had 12,000% more visitors to its site following the Willis family’s decision to reveal his diagnosis.

If you’re worried, here’s where to start

Memory loss doesn’t always mean dementia

Although memory loss can be a sign of dementia, this isn’t always the case – there are many other common causes of forgetfulness.

When we’re stressed or tired or feeling under the weather, all of these factors can affect concentration, and this can have a short-term impact on your memory. Occasional instances of forgetfulness happen to everyone as they get older too.

The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that only 10% to 15% of people who experience changes in their memory and thinking will go onto develop dementia each year.

Helen Payton is a dementia adviser at Alzheimer’s Society and says memory loss and forgetfulness can happen for a variety of reasons, and it isn’t necessarily a sign of dementia.

“Forgetfulness can be a normal sign of ageing, or it can happen due to stress, vitamin deficiencies, thyroid problems or other treatable conditions,” she explains.

“But if you have noticed that your loved one has started to forget things they should remember easily, or if they forget things more and more often, then it could be a sign of dementia.”

Two people are sitting across from one another in casual clothing and are joining handsCredit: Shutterstock / Dragana Gordic
Try to start a conversation about memory loss in an open and gentle way

How to start a conversation

Raising the topic of memory loss with your loved one

Payton says that talking to a loved one about your concerns about their memory loss can feel difficult, so approaching the conversation in a gentle and open way is best.

“Choose a place that is familiar and private to bring up the conversation and allow plenty of time, so it is not a rushed chat,” she explains. “Gently bring up your concerns and listen to what your loved one has to say with no judgment.”

“Ask some initial questions, such as have they noticed their symptoms. Ask if they have any fears about seeking medical help,” she adds. “If they also have concerns about their memory, please encourage them to visit their GP. If it will help, offer to go with them too.”

Remember, they might have noticed changes themselves, and be relieved to have the chance to talk about it.

What is memory loss?

How memory loss can affect people

Dementia can affect different people in different ways. Payton explains that less common types of dementia (such as frontotemporal dementia) that affect different areas of the brain can cause other symptoms such as changes in personality or behaviour, difficulty concentrating, or taking longer to process things.

If you’re worried about a loved one, Payton advises to start by making a note of anything that you spot that is out of the ordinary.

Don’t automatically assume it’s dementia – instances of forgetfulness and the odd memory lapse happens to everyone, and it’s typically due to other reasons, such as a period of poor sleep. Some decline in memory is very common as people get older, without this necessarily being caused by dementia.

But for someone with dementia, memory problems will gradually become more persistent, and they will begin to affect their everyday life.

Payton explains that dementia is caused by damage to the brain, and this damage can affect the areas of the brain that are involved in creating and retrieving memories.

Memory loss can also be a symptom of any type of dementia, and it can affect a person’s memory in different ways. That might mean not being able to create new memories, or taking longer to recall something that they used to know, or not being able to recall it.

Memory loss can affect everyone differently. These are some of the ways that it can affect people’s lives:

  • Forgetting recent conversations or events
  • Having difficulty finding the right word during a conversation
  • Forgetting the names of people and objects
  • Misplacing items (such as keys or their glasses)
  • Getting lost in familiar surroundings or on familiar journeys
  • Forgetting how to carry out familiar tasks, such as making a cup of tea
  • Forgetting appointments or anniversaries
  • Struggling to keep track of medication and whether they have taken it or not
  • Finding it harder to recognise faces they know well.
Hands holding a brain-shaped puzzle with pieces removed on a light blue backgroundCredit: Shutterstock / SewCream
Memory loss can feel as though your brain is missing a piece

How to support someone with dementia

Practical ways you can offer support

There are many practical ways that you can support a loved one who is experiencing memory loss. Here are a few examples that you might find useful.

How to help with remembering recent conversations or events

Even in the early stages of dementia, people can find it hard to remember recent conversations and events. Encouraging your loved one to keep a record of what has been happening can help to jog their memories. This might include taking more photos when out and about or writing things down in a diary, journal or calendar.

How to help with forgetting words and names

It’s frustrating when you can’t quite find the right word during a conversation, and this can become a common occurrence for people living with dementia.

Be patient and allow more time for a loved one to get out what they are trying to say. Feeling under pressure to speak can make finding the right words even more tricky.

To help a loved one when they have forgotten a person’s name, the Alzheimer’s Society advises trying to find a subtle and tactful way to remind them, without drawing attention to their forgetfulness. For example, introducing a person with their name and that this is a friend of theirs.

Another idea is to create a memory book or memory box, where you can add photos and brief information on people in their life, such as their name and how your loved one knows them, to help to prompt their memory.

How to make everyday tasks a bit easier

As dementia progresses, people will gradually experience more difficulties with daily tasks, especially those that involve following a set of steps. They may not be able to recall the order of the steps involved at times. Finding ways to help with this can enable your loved one to maintain their independence.

Breaking down what they have to do into smaller, simple steps can help. This might mean making a note of the steps they would go through to make a cup of tea and placing a mug and tea bags near the kettle.

Losing items

Losing items or forgetting where you left them can be particularly disconcerting. People with dementia might regularly misplace items, such as glasses or keys. This can be partly due to placing them in unusual spots around the home, such as leaving the TV remote control in the bathroom.

Keeping items in obvious easy-to-find places can be helpful, such as hanging keys on a specific hook or always placing them in the same drawer. Having extra copies of items that often get misplaced can be useful, as can having duplicates of important documents.

Adding pictures and photos of commonly misplaced items to cupboard doors and porch areas can also help to remind loves ones about where certain items can be found.

Forgetting upcoming appointments and anniversaries

In order to remember medical appointments, hospital visits, birthdays and anniversaries, we tend to add phone reminders, jot dates down in our diaries and make notes on our calendars. All of these can help people living with dementia too.

The Alzheimer’s Society advises helping your loved one to use calendars and clocks to remind them of upcoming events. These can be placed in prominent locations around their home, such as on a bedside table, or by the phone.

If they are given an appointment card, place it where they will easily see it such as on a noticeboard, for example.

Online calendars on mobile phones, tablets and computers can be useful for setting up reminders about upcoming events and appointments. Some people may also find using virtual assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri or Google Assistant, are good for a spoken reminder when needed.

Some health and beauty services such as GP surgeries, dentists and hairdressers can also provide a reminder text message before their appointment. Some families find this helpful too, as if you ask, it’s often possible for reminder messages to be sent to more than one phone.

How to look after yourself

The pressure on families

If you’re concerned about a loved one’s memory loss, whether or not they’ve been diagnosed with dementia, we know that this is a difficult time. Navigating your way through the diagnosis process can be challenging, and if you do have a loved one with dementia, it can have a big impact on your life.

Kate Lee, chief executive of Alzheimer’s Society, says: “A third of us will develop dementia in our lifetimes, making it the biggest health and social care challenge we face. Caring for a partner with dementia is fulfilling the ultimate relationship vow. But navigating your way through ‘in sickness and in health’ can be overwhelming.”

Caring for someone with memory loss and dementia can feel challenging and often lonely. Remember that it’s very common to feel this way. If you’re feeling low, ask your GP for support. You can also find carers’ groups, in person or online. Charities such as Alzheimer’s Society, Dementia Carers Count and Carers UK can offer more information about groups you can join.

You can also apply for a free carer’s assessment, which will look for ways to make your life easier. It’s important for you to be able to take a break. If you can, ask family and friends for support so that you can take some time for yourself.

For more information about dementia, visit alzheimers.org.uk

Julie Penfold

Written by Julie Penfold she/her

Updated:

Julie Penfold has been a specialist health and wellbeing journalist for more than 15 years and has been a finalist in three prestigious health and medical journalism awards during that time. She has written for a wide variety of health, medical, wellbeing and fitness magazines and websites. These have included Running, TechRadar, Outdoor Fitness, Be Healthy, Top Sante, Doctors.net.uk and The Guardian’s Social Care network.

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