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Posted: May 03, 2007

Spousal Caregiving

Don't Forget These Strategies to Sharpen Your Memory

Bill Andrew

As the 24/7 caregiver for my wife, Carol, who is afflicted with late-stage Alzheimer’s disease, I was struck recently by an article that discussed 10 strategies to improve memory and thought.

One of the early manifestations of Alzheimer's disease and related dementias is deterioration in short-term memory along with cognitive decline. Those indications may or may not signal the onset of Alzheimer's or related dementia.

As I thought more about what the article, published by Harvard Health Publications a marketing partner of this website, had to say, I thought it would be helpful if I shared these well-thought-out strategies with you. We all can use the perspective these strategies provide.

Normal age-related changes in the brain can slow some cognitive processes, making it a bit harder to learn new things quickly or to ward off distractions. The good news is that, thanks to decades of research, most of us can sharpen our minds with proven, do-it-yourself strategies. Here are some ways to boost you ability to remember as you age.

1. Believe in yourself. Myths about aging can contribute to a failing memory. Middle-aged and older learners do worse on memory tasks when exposed to negative stereotypes about aging and memory -- and do better if exposed to messages about memory preservation into old age.

2. Economize your brain use. Take advantage of calendars and planners, maps, shopping lists, file folders, and address books to keep routine information accessible. Designate a place at home for your glasses, keys, and other items that you use frequently.

3. Organize your thoughts. New information that is broken into smaller chunks, such as the hyphenated sections of a phone number or Social Security number, is easier to remember than a single long list, such as financial account numbers or the name of everyone in a room.

4. Use all of your senses. The more senses that you use when you learn something, the more of your brain will be involved in retaining that memory. For example, odors are famous for conjuring up memories from the distant past, especially those with strong emotional content, such as the smell of your grandmother's freshly baked cookies.

5. Expand your brain. Widen the brain regions involved in learning by reading aloud, drawing a picture, or writing down the information you want to learn (even if you never look back at your notes). Just forming a visual image of something makes it easier to remember and understand; it forces you to make the information more precise.

6. Repeat after me. When you want to remember something you have just heard, or thought about, repeat it aloud. For example, if have just been told someone's name, use it when you speak with him or her: "So, John, where did you meet Camille?"

7. Space it out. Instead of repeating something many times in a short period, as if you were cramming for an exam, re-study the essentials after increasingly longer periods of time -- once an hour, then every few hours, then every day. Spacing out period of study is particularly valuable when you are trying to master complicated information.

8. Make a mnemonic. Mnemonic devices are creative ways to remember lists. They can take the form of acronyms -- such as the classic "Every good boy does fine" to remember the musical notes E, G, B, D, and F on the lines of the treble clef. For older learners, a particularly helpful system is a story mnemonic -- that is, a brief narrative in which each item cues you to remember the next one.

9. Challenge yourself. Engaging in activities that require you to concentrate and tax your memory will help you to maintain skills as you age. Discuss books, do crossword puzzles, try new recipes, travel, and undertake projects or hobbies that require skills you are not familiar or comfortable with.

10. Take a course. Memory-improvement courses are becoming more popular. If you decide to try one, choose a program run by health professionals or experts in psychology or cognitive rehabilitation. Stay away from courses that center on computer or concentration games, which generally will not help you with real-life memory problems. Select a course that focuses on practical ways to manage everyday challenges.

At 78 years "young," I have found that I have used many of these strategies over time without really recognizing them as such. Perhaps it is my background, education, and experience -- perhaps it is because I have been Carol’s caregiver over these past 13 years. In any event, I read a lot, write a lot, manage many caregiver activities for Carol, and still find time to facilitate an Alzheimer's support group and chair a county-wide family caregiver organization.

Is that too much? I don't know. What I do know is that my mind is still sharp at 78 and my memory and recall is usually instant. Could the above memory-improvement strategies have anything to do with that? I think so!

Have you had any experience with any of these memory-improvement strategies? If so, I would like to hear from you and share your stories with other readers of this column. Just drop me a line at ASKBill@caregivershome.com and I will share them in a future column. Please provide your full name and city/state. Don’t worry; if I use your material, I’ll identify you only by your first name and last initial and your location.

WORDS TO CARE BY . . .

"How poor are they who have not patience!

What wound did ever heal but by degrees.

William Shakespeare (1546-1616)

 


Bill Andrew identifies himself as a former “nutritionally-empowered Alzheimer’s caregiver” who attributes the slow-down in progression of Alzheimer’s disease in his wife, Carol – and the growth of his own personal emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual capability and strength to provide quality 24/7 care for her in their own home – to the targeted nutritional supplements they both took on a daily basis. Carol went to her Heavenly reward on June 9, 2008 – Bill continues on to advocate for family caregivers. Contact Bill with your caregiving questions and comments via email at ASKBill@caregivershome.com.

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