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Nancy Wurtzel

She writes about midlife changes.

I misplaced my car keys. Should I be concerned about memory loss?

Older adults often experience some forgetfulness as they age. Most of these mild cognitive changes are considered a byproduct of normal aging and usually not cause for concern.

But which symptoms are considered normal and which are signals something more serious is at work? 

It's not always easy to tell the difference. In fact, memory warning signs are often misunderstood or ignored.

Health experts generally agree that forgetting to pay a bill or misplacing your glasses are not signs of serious cognitive problems. More concerning would be forgetting how to fill out a check or how to put on your glasses once you find them.

Here's another example: You drive to the mall for a shopping excursion and park the car outside your favorite store. Leaving the mall several hours later, you know which lot you parked in, but you don't recall exactly where. However, after a few minutes of searching, you locate your vehicle.

Is this a sign of memory loss? Probably not. When you arrived at the mall, you may have been thinking about what tasks you needed to accomplish, and this distraction prevented you from making a lasting memory of where you left your car. 

On the other hand, if you find your automobile but have difficulty opening the door or starting the engine, this could be an indication of more serious cognitive problems. Why? Because unlocking and starting a car are considered ingrained, automatic tasks that a person does without thinking. Similarly, putting on glasses and paying a bill are also ingrained, so forgetting how to do them may be a concern. 

Family members and friends should be be on the lookout for a decline in three significant skill areas: memory, thinking and reasoning. Below are some symptoms of cognitive problems:

  • Memory loss, especially short-term resulting in repeated questions or comments.
  • Personality or mood changes, such as anger, confusion, withdrawal.
  • New challenges with language, obvious in writing, speaking or understanding.
  • Confusion surrounding time and/or place.
  • Inability to complete regular tasks or follow steps. 
  • Getting lost and not being able to retrace steps.
  • Change in walking gait or balance. 
  • Problems making decisions or exhibiting poor judgment

If you, or someone you know, is experiencing some of the above symptoms, don’t ignore the situation. Inaction won’t make the problems go away. See a medical professional who can help determine what is causing the condition. The good news is that sometimes memory loss stems from a cause that can be easily treated, such as a drug interaction. 

Also, be aware that the person experiencing memory issues may not even realize there is a problem.

Schedule a visit to see the family doctor for an evaluation. Ahead of time, make notes about the severity and frequency of symptoms and bring those notes along with any questions you may have.

Ask your doctor to perform a physical that includes a simple memory assessment test called a Mini-Cog.

If Alzheimer’s or another brain disease is suspected, request a referral to a neurologist. Knowing the cause of the memory problems will help you and your family prepare for the future.

Whatever the diagnosis, knowledge is power.

How to care for yourself when you're the caregiver

Many caregivers fall into the trap of believing they have to do everything by themselves. This can be a recipe for disaster. If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to care-give for someone else.

Two-thirds of caregivers work outside of the home. Juggling work responsibilities and caregiving can be an overwhelming experience. If you’re in this situation, try these ideas for balancing your work and personal caregiving responsibilities:

- Learn to delegate.

- Share your work responsibilities with co-workers.

- Ask your company’s human resources department about resources, such as support lines or referral services. Then make use of these assistance programs.

- Talk with others. Keep an open line of communication with your supervisor and co-workers.

- Enlist the doctor’s help. Ask your loved one’s doctor to send a letter to your company explaining the seriousness of your loved one’s condition.

Even if you don’t have a job in addition to your caregiving duties, you do have a life. That life may include a spouse, children, grandchildren and others. How to you juggle the caregiver duties and still have lead your own life? Here are some tips for caregivers:

- Avoid guilt. Feeling guilty is normal, but understand that no one is a “perfect” caregiver. You’re doing the best you can at any given time. Your house does not have to be perfect. No one will care if you eat leftovers three days in a row. And you don’t have to feel guilty about asking for help.

- Accept help. Make a list of ways people can help you, and then let the helpers choose what he or she would like to do. For instance, a relative might be happy to take the person you care for a walk. Someone else may be willing to pick up groceries and run errands.

- Reach out. Organizataions such as the Red Cross and the Alzheimer’s Association offer classes on caregiving. Local hospitals may have classes specifically about the disease your loved one is facing.

- Join a support group. A support group can be a great source of encouragement and advice from others in similar situations. It can also be a good place to make new friends.

- Stay Connected. Make an effort to stay in touch with family and friends. Set aside time each week for socializing, even if it’s just a walk with a friend. Whenever possible, make plans that get you out of the house.

- Commit to your own good health. Find time to be physically active on most days of the week, and don’t neglect your need for a good night’s sleep. It’s also crucial to eat a healthy diet.

- See your doctor. Get recommended immunizations and screenings. Make sure to tell your doctor that you’re a caregiver. Don’t hesitate to mention any concerns or symptoms.

Additionally, look for Local Caregiver Resources for Support. If you’re like many caregivers, asking for help is not always easy. But rather than struggling on your own, take advantage of local resources. To get started, contact your local Area Agency on Aging (AAA) to learn about services in your community. You can find your local AAA online or in the government section of your telephone directory or search online.

Reach out to your local Alzheimer’s Association chapter. 

The emotional and physical demands of caregiving can strain even the most capable person. That’s why it’s so important to take advantage of every available support.