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When Memory Fades:
Strategies to Prolong Aging in Place

By Robert F. Bornstein, PhD and Mary A. Languirand, PhD

Everyone has moments of failing memory-misplaced keys, missed appointments, misremembered names. When are these events just blips on the radar, and when do they represent a more serious problem? More than 4 million adults in the United States suffer from Alzheimer's disease-about 1 of every 70 people-and though memory loss due to Alzheimer's disease or some other form of dementia does not preclude aging in place, it does require some additional accommodation.

Keep in mind that the memory failures we often find most troubling (forgetting what month it is, for example, or being unable to recall our grandchildren's names) are not necessarily those that create the greatest problems in living. Thinking that it's still March when it's actually April is embarrassing-but no one has ever entered a nursing home because they misestimated the date. The more serious memory problems-the ones that may potentially require a higher level of care-are those that put the person or others at risk. Forgetting to turn off the stove when you're done cooking dinner would be one example. Or heading down the block for the newspaper wearing slippers and a nightshirt.

So how can you tell which memory lapses warrant a doctor's attention, and which are just the normal effects of aging? To determine whether memory problems warrant formal evaluation by a physician, look for three things:

  • A pattern rather than a single incident

    Occasional "senior moments" happen to everyone, especially when we're tired, stressed, anxious, or ill. Everybody draws a blank once in a while, but if you've forgotten a series of important dates, or friends have begun to call ahead of time to remind you to show up for appointments, the behavior is now part of a pattern, and could be an early sign of memory loss.
  • Not remembering how familiar things work

    Misplacing one's keys is not a sign of dementia. Holding keys in one's hand and not knowing what they are used for might well be. To the degree that memory problems involve an inability to recall how things work, and what they are used for, the likelihood of a more serious problem increases. (Of course this only holds for familiar items….trouble figuring out how to use your new tablet or smart phone doesn't count.)
  • Memory failings accompanied by language difficulties

    Forgetting a name every once in a while isn't unusual, but if your speech becomes peppered with substitute words ("that thingy" or "the whatchamacallit") you may have a problem. Inability to express yourself concisely-rambling conversation-is also a troubling sign (so if friends start urging you to get to the point, consider that a red flag). Repetitiveness can be a red flag as well: If people tell you you're asking the same question over and over, it's time to take action.
 

Robert Bornstein and Mary Languirand are the authors of When Someone You Love Needs Nursing Home, Assisted Living, or In Home Care, which is available at amazon.com, or may be purchased directly from HarperCollins Publishers.

Our latest book is entitled How to Age in Place: Planning for a Happy, Independent, and Financially Secure Retirement, published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House.