Practical tips for supporting someone with memory loss

There are many practical ways that you can support a person with dementia who is having difficulties with their memory.  It is important to support the person with dementia to do as much as possible, and for as long as possible.

Supporting a person with memory loss
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Forgetting recent conversations or events

People with dementia may find it hard to remember recent conversations and events, even in the early stages. Keep in mind that the person isn’t 'being difficult'.

Due to the damage that is causing the person’s dementia, their brain may not have stored the information. This means that they cannot bring back the memory of the event or discussion because they may not have that memory.

How you can help

  • Pictures and written descriptions can be useful records of things that have happened. Encourage the person to use a diary, journal or calendar to record events and conversations.
  • If the person repeats a question, it won’t help to tell them that they have heard the information before. Give simple answers and repeat them as needed. You can also write the answer down so that the person has a note of it.
  • If the person can’t remember whether they have done something or not, try to give context to your question and include prompts. For example, ‘It must be a while since you ate breakfast, are you hungry?’ rather than ‘Have you had breakfast?’.
  • If the person does not remember a conversation you have had with them recently, keep in mind that this is not because they weren’t listening. If the conversation was important, it might be worth having it again.

Forgetting names and words

People with dementia may have difficulties finding the right word in a conversation. They might feel stuck because the word is ‘on the tip of their tongue’. They may confuse one word for another – for example saying ‘glue’ instead of ‘shoe’. They may also forget the meaning of certain words.

In a similar way, a person with dementia might forget people’s names, even those of friends or family members whom they have known for a long time and are close to.

These difficulties can make it harder to communicate with a person with dementia. However, there are a number of ways to support conversation.

How you can help

  • If the person is tired or stressed, it will be harder for them to remember words and names. If this is the case, it might be better to have the conversation at a different time, when the person is feeling more relaxed.
  • If the person is struggling to find a word, don’t rush them. Give them enough time to say what they are trying to say. If they feel under pressure, this might make it more difficult for them.
  • If you are not sure what the person is trying to tell you, consider the context of what they are saying. This may give you clues about the word they are looking for.
  • If the person doesn’t understand a word you are using, try using prompts, cues and context to help with naming items. The person may recognise an object and what it is used for, even if they can’t remember what it is called.
  •  If the person is struggling to remember someone’s name, don’t put them on the spot. Instead, try to find tactful ways to remind them without highlighting that they have forgotten the person’s name – for example, ‘Here’s your friend, Elena’.
  • Ask the person if it would be helpful for other people to introduce themselves before they speak. This may depend on how the person with dementia feels about their memory difficulties and whether they are happy for others to know about these.
  • Consider using a ‘memory book’ or ‘memory box’ with photos and brief information on people (such as their name and the story of how the person knows them). The person with dementia can then refer to this if they want to.

For more ideas on ways to communicate with a person with dementia see Communicating.

Losing items

People with dementia often lose items as a result of their memory loss. They may misplace common items, such as glasses or keys, or put an item somewhere for safekeeping and then forget where it is. They may also leave items in unusual places – for example, leaving the remote control in the bathroom, or tea bags in the fridge.

If the person thinks an item should be somewhere and it’s not, this may lead them to think that someone is hiding or stealing things from them. This is a type of delusion. It can be difficult both for the person and those around them. It can help to try see things from their point of view. The person with dementia is trying to make sense of their reality and what is happening. 

It is also important to note that there may be truth in what the person is saying – don’t dismiss it because they have dementia.

How you can help

  • Try to keep items in places where the person is used to them being – for example, hanging keys on a specific hook or always keeping them in the same drawer.
  • Consider getting copies of items that are important or often misplaced, such as keys, glasses or important documents.
  • Keep rooms and drawers tidy so that things are less likely to get lost and easier to find if they are misplaced. Put items that are often used where they can be seen and are easily accessible.
  • Consider getting a tray marked ‘letters’ or ‘post’ to make sure that these do not get misplaced. This can also allow you to double-check important items such as GP appointment letters or test results, as long as the person consents to this.
  • Use visual clues to explain where items go, such as pictures or photos stuck to cupboard doors as reminders of what goes inside them.
  • Consider a locator device to help find items that often get lost, such as keys. For more information on these see Using technology to help with everyday life.
  • When looking for a lost item, use your knowledge of the person to help you think where they might have put things.
  • If the person puts items in unusual places but this doesn’t pose a risk to anyone in the household, it may be best to leave things as they are.

Having difficulties with day-to-day tasks

As dementia progresses, the person will have more difficulties with daily tasks, such as getting dressed, making a cup of tea, or taking medication. This may be because these tasks involve following a set of steps, and the person with dementia cannot remember in what order these steps are supposed to be followed.

When a person begins to have difficulties with familiar tasks, it can be worrying for those around them. You may be concerned about the person’s safety and their ability to manage. You may feel that you have to stop the person from doing certain tasks, or start doing these tasks for them.

However, it is important to support the person to do as much as possible for themselves, for as long as they can.

How you can help

  • Help the person to perform tasks by breaking them down into smaller, simpler steps. It can help to write short instructions and place them nearby.
  • Consider the time of day when the person is usually more able to concentrate and try to schedule tasks for these times if you can. For example, they might find it easier to focus in the morning.
  • Try to keep to the person’s usual routine. This gives a framework to the day or week that doesn’t rely on the person’s memory. For example, if the person always watches the news at 5pm, or goes to the shops on a Thursday, then continuing this routine can help them stay oriented and engaged.
  • Reduce distractions, such as background noise, to help the person focus on the task at hand.
  • Make sure that items that the person uses regularly are clearly visible to them. Make tasks easier by putting out the items which the person will need to complete that task – for example, place tea bags and a mug near the kettle.
  • Use reminders, such as sticky notes or a wall calendar, for one-off tasks. Set up more permanent reminders for regular tasks – for example, put up a sign by the front door to remind the person to take their keys and wallet if they leave the house.
  • Think about using assistive technology. These are devices that can help people with dementia manage everyday activities – for example, using electronic pill boxes to remind the person to take daily medication. Assistive technology can also help to reduce danger – for example, through using gas valves and smoke alarms. 
  • Talk to an occupational therapist. They will be able to advise on coping strategies and suitable devices for help with day-to-day tasks. For more information see Using equipment and making adaptations at home.

Getting lost outside the home

A person with dementia may want to leave the house for any number of reasons. These could include exercising or going to the shops. This type of activity can help the person maintain some independence and boost their wellbeing.

Such a trip may involve the person taking familiar routes or heading towards an area that they know well. Despite this, a person with dementia may set off somewhere and then forget where they were going or why. They may also have problems recognising their environment and this can lead to them getting lost or coming to harm. This can be distressing for the person and for their carer.

For more advice on managing the risks of a person with dementia getting lost outside the home see Walking about.

It can be especially worrying if the person gets lost while driving. If this is the case, the person with dementia may have to stop driving, or you may need to look at ways to manage this, such as only driving with another person in the car. 

How you can help

  • If the person gets lost when going out alone, consider going out with them, or arranging for someone else to do so.
  • If the person is happy to, it can help if other people who live nearby are told about the person’s difficulties. This can include people like neighbours and local shopkeepers. They may be able to help if the person gets lost.
  • The person may find that having a mobile phone is useful. There are easy-to-use mobiles available if the person is not used to having one. 
  • Consider using other assistive technology products, such as a GPS device. These use satellite technology to locate the person if they get lost. This can be reassuring for both the person and those around them. For more information see Using technology to help with everyday life.
  • Make sure the person has some form of identification when they go out, as well as contact numbers of people they know well. An emergency identification device, such as those provided by MedicAlert, may be helpful (see Useful resources).  

Alzheimer’s Society also provide helpcards that people with dementia can carry around with them in case they need assistance when out in the community. 

Getting lost at home

People with dementia may forget the layout of the home they are in and become confused about where each room is located. This can lead to the person getting lost within the home.

Sometimes, a person with dementia does not recognise the home they are in at all. As their dementia progresses, they may say that they want to ‘go home’, even when they are at home. This could be because the person does not remember that the place they are now is where they currently live. 

They may be recalling a former home, such as where they lived as a child, and be confused that they are not there now. In some cases, this isn’t about wanting to return to an actual home, but about returning to that feeling of ‘home’. This can happen if the person feels uncomfortable or distressed, and is looking for the positive emotions associated with being at home.

If the person you care for is asking to go home, see section on 'Difficult questions' on our Time-shifting page. 

How you can help

  • If the person is recalling a home that they used to live in, speak with them about this other home, and what it means for them. This may help them to place it in the past.
  • Don’t try to convince the person that they are home, or that this is where they live now. Instead, reassure them that they are safe, and encourage them to talk about the way they are feeling. For example, ‘What is it that you like about your home?’ – this may help you to work out what the person needs in order to feel more comfortable.
  • Make sure that the person is surrounded with familiar items that will help them feel at home. This can include ornaments, photographs, or other objects with a personal connection.
  • Keep a reminder of the current home address by the front door, in the living area or in the person’s room. This can help to remind the person of where they are.
  • If the person forgets the layout of the home, try putting up signs on internal doors to help them find the bathroom, kitchen and other rooms they use regularly. Dementia-friendly signs are available to buy from our online shop.
  • Leave internal doors open so that the person can see easily into each room and consider leaving the bathroom light on during the night.

For more tips on making the home a better space for people with dementia see Making your home dementia-friendly.

Forgetting upcoming events

People with dementia may forget upcoming events such as medical appointments, visits and anniversaries. This can cause problems if you’re not always around to remind the person beforehand.

How you can help

  • Think about how the person remembered events in the past. Using a similar technique is likely to work better than trying to learn a new one.
  • Help the person to use calendars and clocks to remind them of upcoming events. Place them where the person with dementia will see them, such as on the bedside table or by the phone.
  • If the person has an online calendar on their mobile phone, tablet or computer, consider entering reminders for upcoming events and appointments. Virtual assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri can also be useful for this purpose.
  • If the person is given an appointment card, put it where the person can easily see it. For example, you could pin it to a noticeboard.
  • If the person uses a mobile phone, ask whether a reminder text could be sent to them before their appointment (for example with the doctor, dentist or hairdresser). If the person gives their consent, the reminder could also be sent to your phone.

Struggling to recognise faces

As the person’s dementia progresses, they may begin to have difficulty recognising familiar faces, including their own reflection. This can make the person feel as though there are intruders in their home – for example, if they see their reflection in a mirror and don’t recognise themselves, or don’t recognise friends who have come to visit.

People with dementia may also experience ‘time-shifting’. This is when the person believes that they are living at an earlier time in their life and that they are younger than they are now. They also expect the people around them to be younger as well. This can then lead to them mistaking younger relatives for people they know or used to know.  For example, they may think that their child is their partner or that their brother or sister is their parent.

In the same way, when the person is time-shifted, they may not recognise their children. This could be because they don’t believe that they are old enough to have children, especially adult children. 

Not recognising familiar people can be distressing for both the person with dementia and those around them. It is important to try not to take it personally.

Even if the person doesn’t seem to recognise those most familiar to them, they will still have an emotional attachment to those people and will still feel close to them. For example, they may not recognise that you are their child or partner, but they will know that you are a person who makes them feel safe or happy.

How you can help

  • Try to find tactful ways to give the person cues or reminders without mentioning their memory loss – for example, ‘Hasn’t our granddaughter grown?’.
  • Consider using aids like a ‘memory book’ that includes pictures of family and friends or keep albums and photos nearby.
  • Reassure the person and try to make them feel safe and comfortable. If they don’t recognise people, they may feel that they are surrounded by strangers and get distressed.
  • Try not to show the person that you are offended or upset if they do not recognise you – it is unlikely to be a personal rejection. Try to focus on how the person responds to you in the moment. For example, even if they don’t seem to recognise you, they may still smile at you or want to speak with you.
  • Someone with dementia may still be able to recognise people’s voices or the way they smell. Hearing a person speak or smelling someone’s perfume or aftershave may help them to recognise that person.

If someone you care for does not recognise you, this can be upsetting. Try to talk about how you feel with someone you trust. 

Forgetting beliefs and aspects of identity

As the person’s dementia progresses, they may forget or misremember certain beliefs or aspects of their identity which have been important to them.

This can include religious beliefs and practices, aspects of sexual orientation and gender identity, and dietary choices, such as being vegan or vegetarian.

It can be difficult to know what to do in these situations. Try to use what you know about the person and respect their preferences and beliefs as much as possible.

Always consider what is in the best interests of the person. This will mean trying to find a balance between respecting the beliefs that you know were important to the person before with the beliefs that they currently hold, which may be different.

How you can help

  • If the person has forgotten that they used to follow a particular diet, such as veganism, they may now want to eat certain foods that they did not used to eat. However, if the person eats types of food that they have not eaten for some time (or ever), this could affect their digestion. If possible, speak to a dietician or to the person’s GP before the person begins eating these foods. For more advice on this see  Eating and drinking.
  • If the person has forgotten aspects of their faith that used to be important to them, think of other aspects of worship that they might still enjoy or respond to. For example, they may still enjoy religious music and songs, and may take comfort in holding or wearing symbols of their faith. There may also be religious rituals or practices that they have always followed which they can still take part in or watch, either in person or online.
  • If a lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans person with dementia has memory problems, they may forget important aspects of their sexual identity. For example, they may forget that they have told their family and friends about their sexuality, or that they have lived openly as a different gender, possibly for a large part of their life. For more information on supporting a person with this see Supporting a lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans person with dementia.
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