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memory loss

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By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief,

For whatever reason, we, in America, have always had an age bias. We have even been said to worship youth. We buy clothes to make us look younger. We get injections, and we even submit to surgery in order to deceive the eye of the beholder and appear more youthful. Many people have complained about ageism in hiring practices. Women have even bemoaned that they become invisible after age 50. We do crossword puzzles to retain our cognitive abilities.

Is it any wonder, then, that age has recently burst into view concerning our upcoming presidential election? The likely contenders are 77 and 81. That means in January 2029, when the next president will replace one of them, they will be 82 and 86. Until now, Ronald Reagan was the oldest president, leaving office just short of 78.

Both men are being studied for signs that they are too old. Both have had memory lapses. But is memory what determines a person’s ability to perform in a leadership role? Even more crucial, for the rest of us, is memory failure the first sign of impactful cognitive decline and even of encroaching dementia?

According to Dr. Charan Ranganath, professor of psychology and neuroscience, Director of the Dynamic Memory Lab at the University of California, Davis, “As an expert in memory, I can assure you that everyone forgets. In fact, most of the details of our lives—the people we meet, the things we do and the places we go—will inevitably be reduced to memories that capture only a small fraction of those experiences.”

The professor goes on to say, in an Opinion Guest Essay for the New York Times this past Monday, that it is normal to be forgetful as we get older, starting in our 30s. He makes an interesting distinction, however, about memory omissions: There is forgetting and there is Forgetting. To understand the difference is to relax about an occasional lack of memory.

The first (with the small f) describes struggling for that word or name on the tip of our tongue that just cannot be remembered. The professional term for that is “retrieval failure,” and while the word or name is there, we can’t summon it immediately or at all. Those of us who watch “Jeopardy!” on television see examples of that nightly as each contestant struggles to call out the answer to the question first—or as the game works, to call out the proper question to match the answer. They may have the information in their heads but just can’t grab it in time.

Forgetting (with a capital F), however, is when a memory is lost or totally gone. The example of the first, that the professor offers from the political scene, is when the names of the leaders of two countries or people are conflated, as Biden did with Mexico and Egypt and Trump with Pelosi and Haley. An instance of the second is if the President didn’t remember meeting the leader of Egypt at all.

The prefrontal cortex is the brain area that is responsible for daily memory, and it changes somewhat as we age. I prefer to think of it as the Rolodex that becomes so full with thoughts and experiences as we live our lives, that it turns increasingly slowly when called upon to produce a particular memory, like a name or date. While it does turn, it may not retrieve the information until the middle of the next night, and whom can we call with the answer then?

We all want to be “super-agers” and retain our cognitive abilities. There is, according to the professor, a huge degree of variability in cognitive aging. While aging is associated with loss of memory, that should not be equated with cognitive decline.

The professor points out that Harrison Ford, Paul McCartney and Martin Scorsese are the same age as Biden, Jane Fonda is 86, and my mentor in the aging-and-functioning department, Warren Buffett, the head of Berkshire Hathaway, is 93.

So if you can’t come up right away with that name you’re intensely seeking, you’re in good company.

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By Elissa Gargone

Elissa Gargone

One of the great pleasures of life is spending time with a beloved family member or friend. But what happens to that quality time when that special person develops dementia? While its inescapable that a certain level of conversation will be lost, by reorienting your expectations it’s still possible for both of you to have a meaningful visit.  

The first step is to adjust to your loved one’s experience and enter their world. Focus not on what they have lost, but what still remains — their personality, their sense of humor, appreciation of their surroundings, or a connection to music. Start your visit with a smile, eye contact and a simple touch — a pat on the shoulder or back, a squeeze of their hand. These simple gestures help bring focus and connection to the interaction. Bringing something tangible with you that can act as an icebreaker — books, toys, photos or a tasty treat — are often helpful. 

Conversations may become less about ideas and storytelling and more about sharing feelings and emotions. If necessary, redirect challenging conversations in gentle, positive and creative ways, commenting on objects in the room, or outside the window. 

Asking your companion for their advice or opinion can make them feel valued and competent. Intellect is often perfectly intact, even if memory is fading. And please remember, you don’t need to correct your loved one’s recollections or assumptions. Empathize and spare their feelings.  

Jefferson’s Ferry’s memory support neighborhood has been designed to help residents and their loved ones enjoy a range of activities and opportunities for connection in a secure environment. While you may not have all of these options available to you, you can adapt some of these ideas to help you  to connect with your special person.  

The memory support neighborhood is set up to allow residents to safely meander through the hallways and visit “lifestyle stations.” These lifestyle stations replicate environments familiar to our residents that provide comfort and a sense of belonging.  Examples of lifestyle stations include a workbench with tools, a desk with computer station and phone, a nursery with baby doll, a sports room with pennants and hats, or a simple kitchen set up for coffee and conversation.

Our common rooms and visiting spaces include plenty of color, art, and textiles on the walls to stimulate the senses. We also have secure outdoor garden spaces.  

And then there’s music. Music is a pathway that can trigger a flood of long term memories and emotions. A body of evidence suggests that music prompts the secretion of dopamine, which spurs the brain to produce feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. Bringing a playlist of greatest hits enjoyed over a person’s lifetime along with a willingness to sing along or dance is a great way to enhance a visit. Playing familiar and well-loved music can also help to settle someone in an anxious or agitated state.

Despite a variety of tools and techniques, there are times when a visit doesn’t go smoothly for reasons beyond your control. Don’t judge yourself too harshly when this happens. 

Few of us are prepared for the challenges that arise when trying to connect to a loved one with dementia. Unless you’re a professional, it’s not as if you’ve been to school to study this. The most you can do is accept the challenges that come with someone in need of memory support and do your best. There will be good times and the not so good times, but you may be surprised at how fulfilling your visits can be. 

Elissa Gargone is the Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Jefferson’s Ferry Lifecare Retirement Community in South Setauket.

This article originally appeared in TBR News Media’s Prime Times senior supplement on 01/25/24.