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Do stress and overload impact a caregiver's memory?

by Kathryn Kilpatrick

If you are feeling the stress as a caregiver, consider these tips to manage the giant list of things to do, stay organized, and get some rest.

With the busy nature of life in the 21st century, the complaints about memory do not seem to be limited to older adults. Young and old are finding it challenging to remember all the information they are presented with each day. A caregiver often feels like their memory is starting to fail and many worry that they may be in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, especially if there is a history of it in their family. As a speech and language pathologist with more than 3 decades working in the home of older adults, there have been many opportunities to observe and share insights with caregivers, both young and old, about their concerns and some potential strategies.

Some Changes in Memory with Normal Aging

In addition to trouble with word finding, an older adult typically may notice difficulty with processing information and learning new information. Distractions and multitasking can contribute to a reduction in the ability to pay attention or concentrate which in turn reduces a person's ability to retain the information they have been given. If the caregiver also has a hearing loss, there can be additional problems because they may not hear all the information presented and are not using strategies to verify the details. Since stress can also create these same types of problems, it is easy to understand why there are also frequent complaints of forgetfulness with even younger caregivers.

Memory and Lifestyle Choices

In order to maximize memory, a person needs to be able to focus and pay attention. Frequently the responsibilities of a caregiver interfere with sleeping patterns and lessen opportunities to get the needed exercise. Good nutrition frequently lands at the bottom of the list of priorities as the focus and frequent interruptions in the day disrupt schedules.

If a caregiver is not sleeping well over a period of time, they can feel like they are walking around in a fog, and when that happens many of the details can easily escape their attention. Exercise is a great stress reliever and caregivers with time stresses frequently drop this activity off their priority list. When meals are skipped or snacking becomes an endless series of poor choices, caregivers will find themselves more tired and edgy. Realigning priorities to include better daily habits needs to be a part a caregiver's daily routine. Even if it is not possible to be as diligent, awareness that it is essential for health of the caregiver is an excellent first step. With a good night's sleep, some exercise and balanced, healthy meals, the ability to focus and pay attention can improve which may result in better memory or more effective implementation of strategies to assist with recall.

Practical Tips: Elders, Caregivers, and Memory

Since the caregiver is frequently the one in charge of keeping track of the medical details including appointments, ongoing details and information, medications and sometimes detailed caregiving tasks, it is essential to organize information resources.

Frequently I suggest that my families purchase one of the stenographer's notebooks and, on the outside cover, print the date they begin recording the needed information.

Using a notebook. At the top of each page they can write the date and, during the course of the day, jot down any specific information they are given, any medication changes, as well as observations of progress or concerns about the care receiver. By starting a new page every day, the caregiver can review the details of the week easily and highlighting any information that might be important at another time can be very helpful. When the notebook is full, put the last entry's date on the front cover, file the notebook someplace where you can find it if needed, and start a new one.

One of my patients had several caregivers that assisted his wife and keeping each other updated was essential. With everyone recording any important information or observations in the daily log, the quality of the communication provided a resource that kept everyone updated and an excellent way to jog their memory.

Use an electronic record. For those with electronic devices, this same system can be modified to create a log of information for easy reference as well. In this case, there is also an opportunity to email the information to others who may be involved in the care of the person or part of the support system so they are updated on a regular basis.

Accept help from others. When caregivers are willing to accept the help of others, their health is likely to be more stable and a few hours here and there to care for themselves can make a lot of difference. I had a caregiver years ago who did not feel she could take advantage of the offers of friends because she did not want to leave even for a short time in case there was an emergency. Since she had neglected her lifestyle choices, I suggested that she accept some of the offers and that staying in the house would allow her some private time for herself. If there was a problem, she was nearby, either cooking a healthy meal, taking a nap, or going for a walk in the neighborhood taking her cell phone with her. She finally agreed to this and it made a difference in her stress level. She learned to let go a little bit and she eventually was also able to take the time to occasionally run a quick errand or just sit outside and read for awhile.

Sometimes the responsibility of care giving can become overwhelming, but when a caregiver looks at the bigger picture and adds self care to the to-do-list, there is an opportunity to put the daily routine into a better balance. Reducing the stress and implementing practical memory strategies can be one of the first steps in lessening those memory worries. In my blog, I'll be illustrating these ideas with examples from the lives of real caregivers.