How to Help Someone with Dementia Remember Common Things

As we age, our ability to remember everyday things, such as recalling what you need at the grocery store or where you set down your keys, can be reduced. These difficulties may be typical signs of aging, and we adjust by making lists or marking appointments on the calendar.

Key takeaways:
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    A few simple strategies can assist a person with dementia to maintain some independence and improve sense of well-being.
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    Encourage your loved one with dementia to manage as many of their activities of daily living (ADLs) on their own with the help of some strategies and assistive devices.
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    Using simple, cost-effective reminder systems can promote autonomy in someone with dementia.

However, someone with a diagnosed cognitive impairment or dementia may struggle even more to remember everyday things that others may take for granted. Some easy, cost-effective tips can help someone with dementia to maintain optimal independence.

According to the CDC, there are currently almost six million people in the US with a diagnosis of dementia. As our population ages, this number will continue to rise. It is estimated that by 2050 that number will double to 14 million people with dementia. People with cognitive decline aim to remain in their own homes for as long as possible. While some people will need to move to an assisted living facility, the availability of spaces may be limited, so preserving a person's functional ability for their Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) is essential.

Early and mid-stage strategies

In the early stage of dementia, a person's short-term memory is affected chiefly since older memories are more deeply ingrained. For example, a person may be able to remember something they did 20 years ago but not remember what they had for breakfast this morning. The illustration of the layers of an onion applies here. The outer layers are the most recent to be laid, so they are the first to come off. Therefore, common everyday activities, like the grocery list or doctor's appointment, are easily forgotten, requiring management strategies for their ADLs.

Here are some coping strategies:

  • Journal. Keep a pen, journal, or notebook and a calendar with your loved one. This way, they can keep track of lists and appointments and make daily notes.
  • Sticky notes. Use these around the house with short step-by-step instructions and reminders.
  • Whiteboard. Use a whiteboard to write key reminders in large "easy to see" letters.
  • Calendar. A large wall calendar or computer calendar used as a reminder for important events and appointments.
  • Emergency lists. Keep emergency and family member phone numbers by the phone or in a highly visual place. Include the household address in the case of calling 911.
  • Wallet and keys. Keep these items in the same place and label the shelf or wall hook to facilitate easy identification.
  • Medication reminders. Use "blister package" dossettes or electronic dispensers to ensure medication compliance.
  • Timers. Most smartwatches and smart devices can have a timer "alarm" feature that can alert a person to key appointments or medication administration times.
  • Local newspaper. Delivery of a local newspaper or setting up a digital news source on a device will help a person with orientation to dates and events.
  • Dementia clock. Several devices marketed as "dementia clocks" display the date and time and a "push button" audio feature to help seniors with mental orientation.

Mid to later-stage strategies

Since there is currently no cure for dementia, it remains a progressive illness. As cognitive decline progresses, more advanced strategies will be needed to maintain an optimal level of independence. Most of the previously mentioned strategies will continue to apply, but additional responsibilities will likely be required. These include:

  • Labels. Write labels on cupboards and the refrigerator as reminders of what items are behind the doors.
  • Picture labels. Label family pictures and photo albums with the names of people in the picture. As dementia progresses, a person may forget the names of family and friends, but they may recognize the face as someone they "should" know. You may want to include a note with the picture that explains who the person is to them.
  • Contact list. Consider adding pictures to the contact list on your loved one's smartphone if they have one. That way, they can have a face to associate with the name when a call comes in.
  • Set out clothing. This way, your loved one will be more apt to dress appropriately for the weather. In addition, setting out dressier clothing may cue the person that it could be Sunday or a church day.
  • Wayfinding. Many long-term care facilities will use a picture to identify key areas or rooms. These can be used in a person's home as well. For example, a toilet picture can cue someone that the room is a bathroom and may prevent accidents.

Technology at any stage

Here are suggestions for technology to help a person with dementia:

  • Smart watch. Smart watches have many features such as alarms, calendar notifications to alert someone to medication administration, appointments, etc.
  • Virtual assistants. Products such as Amazon Echo or Google Home enable you to set up verbal cues on these devices to act as an audible reminder of events. These devices can be in place of or to reinforce written instructions.
  • Smart display device. Facetime products such as Google (Nest Hub) and Amazon (Echo Show) also have smart displays that enable easy-to-use face-to-face contact with your loved one through a visual screen.
  • GPS devices. Even in the earlier stages of dementia, a person may lose their way when they leave home. Make sure they always have some identification on them, such as a wallet or cell phone. Consider a medical alert-type bracelet with emergency information. More smartwatches now have GPS tracking systems included in the plans.

Maintaining a person's optimal level of independence can give them a sense of control over their situation. That quest for autonomy is no different in a person with dementia. In the early stages, they may be aware of a cognitive decline, so ensuring independence is vital to their sense of well-being. If your loved one is living with cognitive impairment, resist the temptation to do "for them" but a transition to doing things "with them." Strategies to live as independently as possible for as long as possible will help. Consult an occupational therapist or your local Alzheimer’s Association for support, direction, and a more personal care plan.

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