As both parent and child get older, the caretaking dynamic will shift dramatically. While the child gains independence, the parent starts slowing down, bringing both mental and physical consequences. For the adult child, this means adapting to stark changes in their parent’s behavior.
Although the stories vary from case to case, one experience is all too familiar for children all over the world. The parent begins to repeat phrases, questions, and even introductions over and over. For example, they might ask if your child’s school year is over yet when that was weeks ago, and you’ve already told them many times. This circular conversation and the resulting confusion, frustration, and fears can cause a breakdown in communication and even relationships. Both parties feel desperate to stop this but helpless to do so.
You don’t know how you even got here. Your parents’ quick wit and impeccable memory do not reconcile with what you’re seeing now. What switch suddenly flipped?
The answer is simple but brings about a lot of complications of its own: short term memory loss. They keep going back to that conversation because they do not realize you have already had it. This is a concept known as looping.
Alzheimer’s and dementia are the most common underlying causes of short-term memory loss, but they are far from the only ones, and a certain extent of it is to be expected with age. As a person gets older, the brain will begin to shrink, compromising the parts critical to learning and other complex mental activities. In addition, communication between neurons may be less effective and blood flow may decrease. In short, age shows just as much on the inside as on the outside.
The repetition is also a product of anxiety caused by the mental confusion from memory loss, leading to a need for reassurance. What is more, all these factors feed off of one another, leading to a spiral.
Another major concern for the adult child is whether this is happening at a natural pace. The age of onset will vary based on factors such as genetics, lifestyle, medical history, and other factors. However, sixty-five is the widely agreed upon age at which senior years begin, as significant physical and cognitive decline commonly begins.
So, this bodes the question. Can anything be done about this?
Memory degeneration is a natural part of the aging process, so it’s impossible to eliminate it completely. However, there is hope, and a lot of it has to do with changes in the habits of both parties. Even expecting it makes it no less frustrating for adult children, nor does it lessen the fear for what’s going to happen next to their loved one. That’s why you have to keep it at the front of your mind that this is something beyond their control. The change must start with the child. When you feel the urge become angry or dismissive of their repetition, think before you speak and come back to the words on this page.
First, you’re going to just have to accept that there are conversations you’ll just have to have over again. Do not tell them they are repeating themselves. It will only increase their shame and bring about feelings of despair.
Next, you must master the art of redirection. This is far different than trying to change the subject. It means you’re taking the energy of that repetitive question and transforming it into something productive. Instead of coming out of nowhere, your distraction needs to be seamlessly weaved into the conversation as a natural jumping point from their question.
Let’s say they’ve asked you several times over the afternoon where you are going for dinner. Answer their question again, and this time ask them what you think they’ll want to order. Talk about the fun you’re going to have together this evening. If redirection is done in this gentle and loving manner, they’ll become invested in this new subject and be more likely to leave the old one behind.
While you understandably want to move on, do not write off what they are fixated on. It can give you critical insight into what they’re fearful about. For instance, if they’re asking you repeatedly what time a certain event will be, they might fear being late. If you reassure them that you’ll get there on time, their fears will ease, which will naturally make the question come up less often.
However, the toll these measured actions and patience will take on you cannot be glossed over. Make sure that while you’re caring for your parent, you also find the time to care for yourself mentally. If you really feel the stress getting to you, finds someone with a degree of separation to vent to. This way, you won’t bottle frustrations up and take them out on your parent.
All of this will have you thinking, is there any way to stave it off or do I just have to roll with the punches?
While it is a natural and somewhat inevitable process, all hope is not lost. Practicing cognitive abilities now will help slow the process down in the long run. You can help your parent work to increase their brain activity by using a trick called neuroplasticity. Essentially, as you use your cognitive abilities more, the neurons strengthen and become more accessible. On the other hand, neglected activities will weaken, just like with any other muscle.
These activities do not have to be overly complicated or challenging. In fact, the most effective are simple and even enjoyable. Encourage your loved ones to do cognitive challenges such as these.
- Quizzes of any kind
- Trivia and strategy games
- Writing with the opposite hand
- Golfing (or mini golfing)
When you make these suggestions to them, don’t just leave them to it. Participate with them. Along with helping their cognitive function, these can be bonding experiences, which will help them feel more secure, which can alleviate the need for repetition, which is always rooted in anxiety and uncertainty.
Lastly, as the aging process goes on, negative habits such as excessive alcohol consumption and poor sleep patterns need to be curtailed, as they wreak havoc on cognition and memory.
However, when it becomes clear that things are slowing down significantly, you’ll need to be realistic about what daily life activities are no longer possible and when. By far, the most important subject to cover is about driving.
Memory and concentration are essential for driving. A person suffering from cognitive decline getting behind the wheel of a car is dangerous for both them and others on the road. They can forget to yield when they are supposed to, use turn signals, and abide other such traffic laws. In the worse-case scenario, they can get lost out in the middle of the road, a long way from home, not knowing where they are.
This poses risk for serious consequences such as getting lost, in legal trouble, or even causing an accident which could result in serious injury of the person and/or others. Before it gets to this point, you and your parent will need to have a very real discuss about how much longer they will be able to keep driving, and when it’s time to say when.
Make sure you approach this conversation from a place of love and concern for their safety. That way, they will know you are coming to them as an advocate for their wellbeing instead of shaming them. Allow them to express frustration and sorrow, remembering that they are losing freedoms and facing harsh realities about the aging process. Give both them and you some grace and remember that at the end of the day you are on the same team.