Memory Problems: How to Approach Critical Conversations

How often have you heard someone say they need to have a conversation with a loved one who appears to be more forgetful? Perhaps you have also been in that place. Many years ago I spoke to a lawyer who shared the many frustrations of one of his clients. The son would visit his dad periodically and wanted to talk about a variety of things including moving and finances but got nowhere. I suggested that perhaps he needed to change the way he approached his father.

Whether the concerns are issues such as moving, giving up driving,  handling of finances, or management of medications, it is important to lay some groundwork. Assessing the situation often means stepping back and just observing. When you are noting changes, the best thing you can do is try and face the reality of a situation early. The suggestion from Dale Carnegie “Let it be the other man’s idea” is something to think about as you plant seeds for options versus making decisions for them. The earlier you address a concern, the more likely the older adult will have some choices. Waiting too long often means not being able to take advantage of all available resources. Certainly if there have not been any conversations at all, a crisis mode often will bring its own set of challenges.

First of all, assess where you are coming from and be aware that your approach matters. I once heard someone say the 11th commandment is thou should not parent thy parents.   If the older adult feels like they are being treated like a child, the dynamics can be less than productive. Being able to assess the situation ahead of time and being more proactive can increase the options and allow for ongoing discussions without the pressure of having to make decisions immediately.

I clearly remember having the driving conversation with my mother, unsuccessfully for several years, until I tried a different approach. All I did was plant some seeds. First of all I shared some concerns from things I observed like the fact she was unable to hear sirens or use a cell phone in an emergency because of her hearing loss.  Another time  I asked her what would be more difficult for her if she could not drive and we talked about solutions for her. When she announced to the family a week later that she was giving up the car keys, she stated “It was her choice” and the woman who liked driving and was reluctant about not having that option never brought it up again. She had made her decision and stuck to it without a complaint.

Secondly,  spending time together not discussing anything critical can build the foundation for future conversations.   Rachel Naomi Remen, author of a Kitchen Table Wisdom, talks about the organ of vision being the heart. Being present and really listening matters. In between the words come helpful insights if you are able to slow your pace, clear your agenda from your mind and just connect in a way you would like someone to do for you if you were in a similar situation.

Look at the Lifestyle Care Plan to help you think about what would be important to you and then engage an older adult in some of their preferences. To learn more about it, read Lynn’s story about how her care was before and after creating the plan when she was still  in her own home or Ruth’s plan which allowed her to maximize the quality of her life in a nursing home.

This is a good conversation starter which allows you to share what you might prefer should you need to be in the care of another person. Start sharing some of your choices about what you would like to be surrounded by and what would matter in your daily routine. I certainly have my list of the little things that would enhance the quality of my days whatever the circumstances and encourage others to do the same.

“Deep listening is miraculous for both listener and speaker.  When someone receives us with open-hearted, non-judging,  intensely interested listening, our spirits expand.”
Sue Patton Thoele

About Kathryn Kilpatrick

Kathryn Kilpatrick received her Master's degree in Speech-Language Pathology in 1968 from the University of Massachusetts. She has worked in a variety of settings, primarily in Ohio, including hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and for decades in the area of home health care. Kathryn is president of Memory Fitness Matters ( and Communication Connection( She offers memory coaching for all ages and has a geriatric consulting practice. She is a national motivational speaker and author of more than 30 products to enhance communication and connection as well as a Memory Fitness Toolkit. Kathryn brings her decades of experience as a speech-language pathologist to all those wanting to enhance their quality of life, particularly when there are communication, memory and cognitive challenges. Her websites offer information on a wide variety of topics related to elder care concerns as well as memory fitness and successful aging.
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