As our loved ones age, it is not uncommon for them to experience cognitive decline. While this can be a challenging, and sometimes distressing, process, it can be helpful to understand that certain cognitive abilities naturally change as we grow older. By familiarising ourselves with the normal ageing process, we can better support our elderly relatives who may be facing cognitive decline. In this blog, we will explore the different aspects of cognitive ageing, identify problematic decline, and provide practical tips on how to support the wellbeing of our elderly loved ones.
Ageing affects our cognitive abilities in various ways, but while some cognitive functions may decline, others remain stable or even improve with age - don't worry, it's not all gloomy. So what does normal ageing look like? Let's take a closer look at some of these changes:
Memory: Short-term memory tends to decline with age, while long-term memory generally remains intact. This means that our elderly relatives may remember events from the past vividly but struggle to recall recent information, such as appointment times or names of TV shows.
Attention: Simple or focused attention, such as reading a book, often remains unaffected by ageing. However, divided attention, such as multitasking, becomes more challenging as we grow older.
Language: Vocabulary tends to remain relatively stable with age, but word retrieval can become more difficult. It may take longer for our elderly relatives to find the right words or remember specific names.
Speed of Processing: Unfortunately, processing speed does decline with age. Tasks that used to be accomplished quickly may take more time. Nevertheless, cognitive processing can still occur - it just requires more patience and understanding.
Identifying Problematic Decline in the Elderly
While our cognitive functions may decline naturally with age, there can also be decline that can indicate an underlying neurological condition which could need further attention. Paying attention to our elderly relatives' activities, can give us insights into their cognitive health. Here are a few activities where problematic decline may become apparent in our elderly relatives:
Cooking: Elderly people with problematic decline might be unable to get the ingredients together and follow a recipe.
In the supermarket: When decline is problematic, people may struggle to perform simple arithmetic to calculate the cost of their shopping basket before the checkout.
Watching TV or reading a book: Problematic decline makes it difficult for the elderly to follow the storyline or the characters. This might be clear in conversation between people too, like over dinner with the family.
Personal hygiene: Elderly people might forget to wash various parts of the body, or to
wash entirely. They might get confused while getting dressed, putting items on in the wrong
order, when they're facing problematic decline.
Going on an outing: Those with problematic decline may struggle to navigate familiar places, struggle to find their way home or even remember where they live.
Socialising: Problematic decline can make interacting with others, understanding social
situations or conversations are difficult, limiting their social lives.
If you see or recognise consistent signs of problematic cognitive decline in your elderly relatives, it is important to seek professional advice. Consult with their primary healthcare provider who can assess their condition and provide appropriate referrals for further evaluation with healthcare experts, such as geriatricians or neurologists. Early intervention and appropriate care can make a significant difference in managing cognitive decline.
How to support your elderly relatives' wellbeing
While navigating cognitive decline can be challenging, for us giving the care, and those experiencing it, there are ways to support the wellbeing of our elderly relatives:
Keep them moving: Encourage regular low-intensity physical activity, such as walking, light household chores, gardening, or engaging in low-key sports like boules or golf. Even active video games can provide enjoyable movement. Exercise not only promotes physical health but also offers opportunities for socialisation and family bonding. A little bit of movement everyday makes a difference, offers a chance to socialise, and
can be fun for the whole family.
Feed their brains: A poor-quality diet can lead to inflammation, which ends up damaging the brain. Foods linked to inflammation include sugars, alcohol, fried and processed foods. An anti-inflammatory diet focuses on omega 3 fatty acids, which can be found in oily fish, flax seeds, kiwi fruit and walnuts. Also encourage them to include a range of antioxidant-rich foods such as brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, turmeric, nuts and dark chocolate.
Keep them connected: Experiencing mental and cognitive decline with ageing must be scary stuff and social isolation in the elderly is common. Keep talking with them - even if it takes a lot of patience. Have empathy when discussing support options, listen to their feelings and perspectives, and try not to push them if it’s distressing for them. Encourage gentle activity in the community, spending time with the grandchildren or you, or virtual devices that allows you to stay connected from your homes.
Provide mental stimulation: Engaging in mentally stimulating activities can help slow down cognitive decline and maintain brain function. Encourage your elderly relatives to participate in activities they enjoy, such as reading, puzzles, crosswords, or even learning a new hobby or skill. Stimulating conversations, discussions, and reminiscing about past experiences can also provide valuable mental exercise.
Establish routines and support systems: Consistency and structure can be beneficial for individuals experiencing cognitive decline. Help them establish daily routines and provide visual reminders for important tasks and appointments. Additionally, consider enlisting the support of caregivers or home health services to assist with daily activities and ensure their safety and well-being.
Create a safe and supportive environment: Make their living space comfortable and safe by removing potential hazards and organising belongings in a clutter-free manner. Ensure proper lighting, clear pathways, and easily accessible essentials. Use technology such as assistive devices, alarms, and medication reminders to enhance their independence and safety.
Seek support for yourself: Last but not the least, don’t forget about yourself. Taking care of an elderly relative with cognitive decline can be emotionally and physically demanding. Remember to prioritise your own well-being by seeking support from other family members, friends, or support groups. Taking breaks and practising self-care is crucial to maintain your own mental and physical health.
Supporting elderly relatives with cognitive decline requires understanding, patience, and a comprehensive approach that encompasses physical, mental, and emotional well-being. By familiarising ourselves with the normal ageing process, identifying problematic decline, and implementing strategies to support their overall health, we can make a significant difference in enhancing their quality of life. Remember, every small effort counts in creating a nurturing and supportive environment for our loved ones as they navigate the challenges of cognitive decline.