Aging Parents and Us: Memory Loss or Loss of Focus?

I usually publish my blog Tuesday night. Yet I was immersed in readying for, and cleaning up after, a New Year’s Eve party and completely forgot. While multitasking has been a constant in the lives of many of us with old/older parents, the following from Mayo Clinic is a quick, timely read for me and quite possibly for you.

I wrote about disorganization at holiday time and feeling like ADD was at work. So this MD’s short answer, “Stop multitasking and learn how to focus (If link is problematic, Google Mayo Clinic; write “Adult Health” in search box; click any Adult Health post and put “Stop Multitasking” in search box on post’s page), speaks to me with 4 timely suggestions. Indeed, they are doable and 1 (or all 4) could be considered a New Year’s resolution for some. In previous posts (see “Related” below).

Sr. Advisor R talks about how she decided it was essential that she learned to discipline herself to focus. Widowed at 51, as she aged alone in her home, she began forgetting where she put things. When she lost her keys and could ask no one for help, she told herself “You’ve got to pay attention.” And she realized her head was often thinking one thing, while her hands were doing something else (like putting the keys in an unlikely place).

It’s easy for me–and no doubt us if we are caregivers and/or have aging parents–to  juggle too much and lose focus. Depending on our age, we may or may not have memory concerns about ourselves.  On the other hand, when older parents start forgetting, an alarm bell is often triggered

. Since Sr. Advisor R, 100-years-old and my mother-in-law, is way ahead of me in life’s lessons, I needn’t share the 4 suggestions with her. She lives by them. That said, sharing these suggestions with elders who seem frustrated–or are frustrating us–because of memory problems, is another way we can help parents age well.
Related: 2 posts written in early January 2012–basically this same time of year: and with Sr. Advisor psychiatrist, Dr. Bud’s (MD) observations and suggestions and A Burke Rehabilitation (NY) physician distinguishes between benign forgetfulness and dementia.  A model difficult conversation is included here..

Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely tips, information and research from top universities and respected professionals–to help parents age well.

Help Aging Parents: Memory and Multi-tasking-continued from yesterday

“You just answered your questions,” Dr. Bud said. “Multi-tasking becomes problematical for older people at different ages, causing them to lose focus.”

Losing focus, he points out, is different from losing memory.  With the former something isn’t registering because of distraction, lack of concentration, a lapse.  Dr. Bud’s  example: our hands may do things automatically without it “registering” when we’re thinking about something else—like putting the car keys in an unlikely place because we see a file drawer, realize we need to get something out and need two hands to do so.

“When we find what we’ve misplaced, memory is re-established: ‘Oh yes, I went over to the file and put my keys down next to it in order to be able to open the drawer and take those papers out.'”

There is a solution for older people (and possibly for some of us as well) who experience these lapses. The key is to anticipate the need to maintain focus (for example when we have something in our hands), then concentrate.  Sr. Advisor R assures us it can be done. Indeed she lives alone and doesn’t lose things. And that should be reassuring.

On the other hand, we realize how this kind of forgetfulness can cause some older parents and their children to over-react, fearing this is the beginning of something serious.

Should this be the case we all need to realize it may be nothing more than neglecting the discipline to anticipate and focus; or it may be a reaction to medications or something else relatively benign. But should there be any doubt—

In our efforts to help parents age well, which include efforts to empower them, our parents’ primary physician is the first person to contact. Ideally our parents should be the ones to do that. We, of course, can offer to go with them to the appointment or even make the phone call for the appointment. We can reiterate the goal is to be certain there’s no problem.

And we can always take over if there’s great resistance and/or life or limb seem in jeopardy. That said, according to a neurologist at Burke Rehabilitation Hospital and Medical Research Center in White Plains, NY., a show of respect and actions that empower are most important at these emotional times.