When Mom Can’t Remember: How to Deal with Memory Loss

A senior mother and adult daughter sit on a bench together when mom can't remember things at home.

By Arar Han, co-CEO of Alert-One

Between misplaced keys and forgotten names, we have all had our share of memory loss. It is even more frustrating when your Mom can’t remember simple things due to aging. There is no clear cut cure, but there are strategies that can help Mom deal with memory loss.


Establish Structure

Help Mom stay comfortable by adding more structure to her life. This may make it easier for her to remember what comes next, making daily living less stressful.

  • Keep a daily routine. Serve and eat meals at the same time every day. Help her establish a morning routine to start her days and nighttime rituals to help her get to sleep.  
  • Keep everything in its place. Help Mom feel in control by creating a place for everything. Use clear plastic containers with clearly marked labels for where each important item goes.
  • Take on one task at a time. Getting one thing done at a time will help Mom feel in control. If she gets stuck on a task, such as picking out an outfit, have her take a break and try again later. A fresh start will keep her motivated.
  • Keep important things by her bed. Some people with memory loss get confused at night and start to wander. Keep important items like her glasses, water, and tissues by her bed.


Communicate Carefully

If Mom is having trouble with her memory, she may also have trouble when she is talking to you. Be patient and use a calm, gentle voice when speaking with her.

  • Use context clues. When you ask Mom a question, help her out by being specific. For example, ask, “Did you brush your teeth this morning?” instead of “Did you get ready?” This will help Mom avoid the stress of being unable to answer the question.
  • Minimize distractions. Memory loss can make it difficult to stay focused. Help Mom stay focused by turning off the television. Call her by name, and make direct eye contact. Don’t try to talk to her from another room.
  • Give her time to respond, even if it takes more time than you feel is normal. Wait patiently for a response, and don’t interrupt her. If she is struggling to find a certain word or thought, you can gently suggest the word she may be looking for.


Manage (Both of Your) Feelings

This is a stressful and confusing time for both of you. Caregiving is tough. You need to not only try to keep Mom’s emotions under control, but your own as well.

  • Recognize her presence. You may feel the need to complain about how hard caregiving is, but don’t do it where your Mom can hear. She may struggle with her memory, but she can still hear you and can tell when she is being disrespected.
  • Help her stay calm. Mom may panic or get angry because she feels everything is spiraling out of her control. Talk with her about how she feels. Reestablish her feeling of control with an activity that she has already mastered.
  • Don’t take it personally. If Mom becomes mean, angry, or doesn’t recognize you, remain calm and try not to take it personally. She is most likely acting out of confusion. Walk away if you need to – it’s okay to take some time for yourself to recharge.


Acknowledge Her Reality

Mom’s memory loss may cause her mind to live in the past. This can be painful if Mom asks where her husband is, not remembering that he has passed away years ago. Be aware that Mom’s reality may be different from what is actually happening.  

  • It’s okay to fib. If Mom consistently forgets, reminding her is like telling her for the first time. For painful experiences, telling small lies can keep her from feeling fresh pain over again.
  • Redirect her if she insists upon doing something unsafe. If Mom insists on driving to the grocery store, you can tell her that her car is in the shop and you will give her a lift instead. Avoid arguments by avoiding a direct no.
  • Keep present-day reminders around. Keep an easy to read digital clock that displays the time and date. Put up current photos of her loved ones. These reminders will help her live in the present.


Let Her Be Independent

If Mom can do something for herself, then let her do it. She may be losing her memory, but that doesn’t mean she needs help with everything. Let her maintain as much independence as possible. If she still loves to garden, cook, or craft, encourage her confidence.


Be There for Mom

Above all, be there for Mom. Support her through this difficult experience. Your consistent compassion will help her make the best of her golden years.


About the Author

Arar Han is co-CEO of Alert-One, a personal safety technology and consulting firm headquartered in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, with offices nationwide. A Certified Aging in Place Specialist, Arar holds a dual degree in Philosophy and Human Development from Boston College, summa cum laude and an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Originally from Seoul, she currently lives in Palo Alto with her family.