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Some of the best memory aids for people living with dementia are low-tech and available at low expensive but highly effective. What should you know about them?

Memory loss is inevitable in most forms of dementia, but there are ways to assist people living with the disease in keeping up with the facts and appointments of their lives. Here are 10 low-tech methods of managing memory challenges caused by dementia.

Keep it simple

Psychologists talk about "lure" stimuli, new concepts mixed with old. Unless you are specifically trying to introduce new information, don't mix the old and the new. Let someone who has dementia focus on bringing back established memories to deal with current activities.

Minimize PINCH-ME

Sometimes delirium is added to dementia. When patients experience Pain, INfection, Constipation, deHydration, or have adverse reactions to Medication or Environment, recall of essential information for daily activities of life is constrained. Take care of these concerns to ease memory problems.

In dementia associated with Parkinson's disease, increasing problems with constipation and dehydration often foreshadow acute worsening of the disease. It's important to provide stool softeners and to keep track of hydration to stop symptoms, but be on the lookout for new cognitive issues.

Encourage nostalgia

Helping dementia patients remember events in their pasts gives them a reference point for current tasks and boosts self-confidence. Nostalgia increases social connections and gives meaning to daily tasks. How do you encourage nostalgia? Play the patient's favorite music. Cook the patient's favorite foods (but be careful duplicating a favorite dish that was usually made by a deceased spouse). Or simply talk about the past.  

It's reasonable to be concerned that encouraging nostalgia can bring up unhappy memories as well as happy ones. However, several clinical studies have found that the benefits of encouraging nostalgia on continuity of identity, correct behavior, social connectedness, and self-esteem usually outweigh the negatives, as long as unpleasant memories are not brought up over and over again.

Use bright and bold colors with illustrations for written instructions

fThe more attention is paid to visual information, the longer it is remembered. Bright colors, bold fonts, and pictures help the brain to focus on information so that it is remembered longer. Bright colors can bring back memories of similarly bold colors in daily life, and help people who are living with dementia overcome "feature blindness" if they fail to notice objects around them.

Make sure you 'got rhythm'

Senior citizens in the United States usually recall acclaimed singer Ethel Merman's famous lines "I got rhythm, I got music... Who could ask for anything more?" from the 1950's musical Girl Crazy. Rhythm is a useful memory aid. Giving instructions and information to a beat, even if it is exaggerated, gives the brain time to process words between phrases so they are more easily recalled. Keep the playlists individualized. No single song or rhythm is universally appreciated. If you aren't familiar with the music that was popular when the person who has dementia was younger, ask them or a family member of the same age.

Music therapy can be combined with dance therapy in mild to moderate dementia, but be careful not to offer dance therapy in settings where people who have dementia who are also prone to falls may want to join in.

Provide signs to daily activities

By this, we mean literal signs. A whiteboard hung in a prominent position in the room can help patients keep up with appointments and special events of the day. As each task is completed or event has passed, it can be wiped off the board.

Subscribe to the paper

Newspapers provide social connections, even if the only part that gets read is the comics. They also come with day and date, helping dementia patients remember where they are in time. The ability to sit and read the paper, and especially to complete crossword puzzles, is a good indicator of cognitive clarity. People who can sit and read aren't suffering the worse of dementia.

Post sticky notes

Sticky notes are a great way to remember a one-off task, if they are dated (so the task won't be repeated), and removed periodically to prevent clutter. Use sticky notes when you don't have time to make or order signs, and to communicate more personally with the person who is living with dementia or family members.

Post permanent signs where needed

When patients need reminders to take their keys, or to let their caregivers know when they are going out, or to wash their hands after going to the bathroom, sometimes a permanent sign is helpful. Remember that these signs are best printed, not made by hand, so that they are easier to read. Don't use just black and white. Add color to make the sign more noticeable.

Let people who have dementia come up with their own memory strategies

The best mnemonic devices are the spontaneous memory aids people with dementia come up with for themselves. When they work, don't interfere. Just be happy they retain the self-awareness and the ability to come up with a strategy.

  • Hampstead BM, Sathian K, Bikson M, Stringer AY. Combined mnemonic strategy training and high-definition transcranial direct current stimulation for memory deficits in mild cognitive impairment. Alzheimers Dement (N Y). 2017 May 15. 3(3):459-470. doi: 10.1016/j.trci.2017.04.008. eCollection 2017 Sep. PMID: 29067352.
  • Ismail S, Christopher G, Dodd E, Wildschut T, Sedikides C, Ingram TA, Jones RW, Noonan KA, Tingley D, Cheston R. Psychological and Mnemonic Benefits of Nostalgia for People with Dementia. J Alzheimers Dis. 2018. 65(4):1327-1344. doi: 10.3233/JAD-180075. Psychological and Mnemonic Benefits of Nostalgia for People with Dementia. PMID: 30149444.
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  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth

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