As the holidays approach, perhaps you’re preparing to host a houseful of out-of-town guests. If so, you have a lot on your mind. When you forget where you put the turkey baster, that behavior is completely understandable and should be excused.
But maybe you’re already excused — as a family elder; maybe you don’t have to worry about remembering any of the stuff related to holiday meal preparation. Maybe you just have to show up at the correct time on a given day. And once you get there, you just have to smile and nod — and marvel at the tastiness of the gravy.
That’s not so hard, is it? Well … maybe. Holiday celebrations may place less responsibility on older adults like you and me to host events and prepare the cranberry sauce, but there is another set of stressors that deserve to be discussed.
First of all, adult children you haven’t seen for a while will probably be assessing you. They cannot help themselves. They are wondering how you’re handling “old.” I suspect any forgetting behavior will be exaggerated when they talk among themselves later. There will be gentle judgments. The comments may range from, “Did you notice mom repeated that same story three times” to “Great-grandma was diagnosed with dementia when she was dad’s age.”
Other than the business of getting old in the first place, which we all will, I continue to think memory loss (or worry about the possibility) is what concerns us the most as we move through the decades. And holidays may exacerbate memory loss symptoms or put simple forgetting in an uncomfortable spotlight. I have a few coping strategies that may help at any time of the year.
About 40 percent of people 65 and older have age-associated memory loss, but only 1 percent progress to dementia each year. Research shows that as we get older we all experience physiological changes that affect how our brains function. It simply takes longer for us to remember things — to learn and recall information. Again and again the research concludes, “In most cases, if we give ourselves time, the information will come.”
Use these research findings as needed. Maybe put the data on an index card and pull it out of your pocket over after-dinner pumpkin pie. Talking about a topic like forgetting (that can become an elephant in the room) before anyone else does, especially if you do it with facts and a little humor, is amazingly purging for a family.
If an aging spouse whose husband is demonstrating cognitive loss says they are walking 40 minutes every day because their doc told them it’s a good way to improve memory function, you can almost see everyone relax.
Memory loss can start as early as 30-something, which is a fact to use with those who make their gentle judgments. Hearing loss can compromise simple forgetting. If you cannot hear the plan, you will not be able to remember the plan. Certain medications or too many medications can make you confused and disoriented and masquerade as memory loss. So can depression.
And finally, what you eat makes a difference. Easy on that tasty gravy.
— Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor. Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.