How to cope when a relative has memory loss or confusion

Independence vs Safety [illustration]
Image by africa at
When our parents’ and their peers move into their eighties and nineties, even those who are physically well may begin to experience memory loss or confusion. The symptoms are distressing for them and for us and it can be difficult to know how to respond at first. One thing I have learned from coping with relatives suffering from memory loss or confusion is that advanced age alone is not the only explanation.

In my admittedly limited experience, dehydration, mistakes with medication and accidents all have the potential to trigger or aggravate episodes of confusion.

For example, when my aunt, aged 85, fell while shopping and hit her head, she was taken by ambulance to A&E. The hospital checked her out before allowing her to go home with instructions to see her GP the next day.

Worryingly, however, the fall triggered symptoms of confusion. My aunt lives alone  so I called her neighbour and asked if he would accompany my aunt when she visited her doctor the next day.  I asked Jack to stress to the doctor that the onset of my aunt’s confusion was sudden and had occurred immediately after her fall. I was worried she was concussed although I was reassured that the hospital had checked for concussion before allowing her  home.

Worryingly, notwithstanding the fall and injury to her head, my aunt’s GP determined that her confusion was likely to be caused by dementia. He arranged for her to undergo cognitive tests. Also, because she lives alone, he arranged for a home assessment visit from a community nurse.

The prospect of this visit was distressing and stressful for my aunt. Still bruised and upset from her fall, she was overwhelmed by the sudden onset of medical attention which she interpreted as unwelcome and unnecessary interference.

Fortunately she scored well in the cognitive tests and got through the home assessment. It was only when her life returned to its usual routine that her memory loss and confusion subsided.

For carers and cared for, memory loss or confusion – even if they are only brief lapses – are worrying. There is an understandable impulse to parent the parent. The lesson I learned from this episode was not to jump to conclusions. Independence and autonomy are not to be lightly relinquished and a balance needs to be struck – for both carer and cared for – when working out the best solutions.