Memory Aids and Memory Strategies for People Struggling with Alzheimer’s Disease
Normally, in this blog, I stick to topics that revolve around the challenges faced by people who have lost or are losing their ability to communicate through speech. As the creator of APP2Speak, a speech app, I usually prefer to “stay in my lane.”
However, there are times when I have important information that I feel needs to be shared concerning situations caregivers might face that might not include speech challenges—or that might be present in addition to speech challenges.
For example, you might have a client (if you’re in health care) or family member who is experiencing symptoms of Alzheimer’s. This disease makes everyday tasks more difficult, especially as it progresses. The person may be becoming more and more forgetful, and you might be wondering how you can help him or her remember the simple things that can help them function better?”
I experienced this situation myself a few years ago with my father-in-law, who was in early-stage Alzheimer’s at the time. My husband Scott and I both worked, so I would do everything I could through visual strategies to help my father-in-law remember the daily actions he needed to perform while we were gone, such as eat lunch, take his medicine, etc.
Our main strategy was to place note cards and labels throughout the house as cues. For example, we placed his medicine in a pill organizer marked with am, noon, and pm and placed a post-it note next to it to remind him to take his medicine.
Also, we placed a note on the refrigerator to remind him to eat breakfast and lunch. We set up his breakfast, lunch, coffee etc. He just had to read the signs, get his meals out, and heat them up. The coffee pot had a note on it that said, “Turn on,” and we had the TV remote labeled for easy use.
Now, this was before “Alexa” came along. I’ll focus on visual strategies in this post, but I do want to mention that you can use the remind feature on Alexa to provide auditory reminders for your client or loved one, also. This provides a powerful combination.
For example, you might place a visual note next to their medication organizer and also set auditory reminders on Alexa to alert the person that it’s time to take their pills. This way, you double the chances that they will stick to their schedule!
If you like the idea of “doubling up” visual and auditory reminders but you don’t have Alexa, you can help the person practice getting into the habit of setting the oven timer (or even a simple free-standing kitchen timer) as an auditory reminder for certain tasks.
The Purpose of Visual Strategies
First, what are visual strategies and how do they help?
Visual strategies are, of course, things we can see. They’re sometimes called visual cues or supports, and they’re just a way to provide supplementary information. We can use visual cues to help an individual understand a situation and show them what they’re supposed to do in that situation.
One of the greatest benefits of making something visual (as in a note, a memory book, etc.) is that you can keep it and refer to it over and over, which helps the person to remember and understand.
Ultimately, the goal of using visual strategies is to allow the person to participate more independently in their activities of daily living (ADLs).
Examples of Memory Aids
There are a number of tools you can use as aids for memory. Here are some of the most common:
Post-it notes are a great way to write down reminders as needed or as you think of them. Just put the post-it note in a place where you know the person will look (such as on the bathroom mirror). You may also need to write on the post-it (after the main direction) to take the note down once they’ve completed the action, to prevent them from doing it twice.
Dry erasable whiteboards are another great tool to help your client or loved one remember things. Whiteboards come in a number of different sizes and can be hung on the wall. You can also find magnetic whiteboards that can be put on the fridge.
Again, to avoid confusion, you might want to write in a corner of the whiteboard a note (not to be erased) that the person needs to be sure to update the information on the whiteboard as they complete each task.
An emergency may happen, and the person may need to go to the doctor’s office or hospital unexpectedly. You can help your loved one or client to be prepared for this situation by having them fill out the Alzheimer Society’s “Be Ready for an Emergency Department Visit” form, which walks them through pre-planning for such a situation (such as pre-packing a ready-to-go bag, having a list of their medications in the bag and in their purse or wallet, etc.).
This form will provide the hospital staff with detailed information about the person’s healthcare needs, making it possible for them to provide more personalized care.
It may also be helpful to create a list with emergency phone numbers (such as the fire department and the numbers of their emergency contacts) and post this list in an easy-to-access place, such as on the fridge.
Computer Calendars: Outlook Calendar and Cortana
If the person you’re helping is still only experiencing mild forgetfulness and they still use their computer and/or cell phone regularly, there are programs you can use as powerful memory aids.
The Outlook calendar and Cortana are Windows programs that have options for pop-up reminders for any of the events that you add to the person’s calendar, such as medical appointments or social engagements.
For example, you or they might have added to their calendar that they have a doctor’s appointment on June 29th. The pop-up reminder will remind them of this the day before the appointment and 15 minutes before the appointment.
Similarly, many cell phones have a calendar application into which you can add reminders of the person’s future appointments and social gatherings. For example, you can download the Cortana application and it will link automatically to the reminders that you’ve added on the person’s computer.
One of the most important purposes of memory aids is to help the person remember to take their medications. After all, in some cases, if they forget to take their medications, it could literally be a life and death situation!
Here are five strategies to consider:
Place Medications in Plain View
It’s crucial that you find a highly visible place for the person’s medications. Place their medications in a place they frequent, or a place that will act as a visual reminder for them to take them.
For example, if they’re a regular coffee drinker, you might place their morning medications by the coffee machine.
One caveat: If the person lives with young children, or if they have young children visiting frequently, you’ll need to put the medications in a place where they can’t reach them.
Pill containers come in different sizes and have compartments for each day of the week and for different times throughout the day. These are very valuable for reminding the person to take their pills and which ones to take at what times.
For example, the container may have compartments for pills to be taken in the morning and a separate compartment for pills to be taken in the evening. Other pill containers may have more options (morning, afternoon, evening) that may better serve their needs.
Blister packs are pre-packaged dispensers for medications that are made up by the pharmacist, usually free of charge. Blister packs make it easier for the person to track that they’re taking the proper medication at the proper time and in safe dosages.
You might consider keeping an empty blister pack or pill container on the person’s bathroom counter to act as a visual reminder for them to take their medications.
Paper Medication Calendar
Another simple step to help the person remember to take their medications is to hang a calendar next to the place where they keep their meds.
Have them use the calendar to mark down the day and time they took their medications and impress upon them the importance of doing this as soon as they take the medication. It won’t work if they wait until later to mark this on the calendar, as they may not remember if they took or not by then.
The benefit of combining the use of a paper calendar with the previously discussed methods is that, if they forget that they took their medication, or if they took the medication out of the pill container or blister pack by mistake, the calendar will help them double-check if they’ve taken the medication, and when, which will reduce their risk of taking the medication twice.
Finally, consider combining visual reminders with auditory reminders. I discussed the use of Alexa previously, but there are other ways to set alarms throughout the day as a reminder for them to take their medications.
For example, they could use a cell phone to set multiple alarms throughout the day for different medications that they may be taking.
Everyday Memory Strategies
Finally, in addition to the more specific situations discussed in the previous sections, I want to share some basic, everyday memory strategies that many people struggling with memory issues have found helpful.
Helping your loved one or client develop these habits can go a long way toward helping them function more effectively and independently in their daily lives.
Visual cues can be very helpful for remembering a variety of tasks that need to be done.
- Having them hang a backpack on the door handle can remind them to take it with them when they leave home.
- Helping them to get in the habit of leaving a slow cooker or a bread maker on the counter will remind them that they want to prepare a meal or make bread later.
- Teaching them to put their full laundry hamper in their living room will remind them that that need to do laundry.
Helping someone come up with visual cues for tasks they do often can really pay off. You’re only limited by your imagination!
Carry a Notebook and Pen and Write it Down
If you can get your loved one or client into the habit of carrying a notebook and pen with them whenever they leave the house, they can use it in a number of ways to help them remember things they need to do or remember events that have recently happened.
Here are a few ways they could put pen and paper to work for them:
- They could write down tasks that they need to get done (a to-do list), such as writing down that they need to buy fresh flowers today. Even if they think they’ll remember what they need to do, writing it down makes it easier to verify that they’ve done everything they intended to do.
- Once they’ve completed a task, it’s important that they discard the note or strike through the to-do item in order to avoid confusion and keep them from doing something twice.
- If they take their notebook with them but sometimes forget that they have it, you may also find it useful to teach them to write especially important notes on their hand. Because hands are always visible, having a note written on one’s hand will make the note more accessible.
- Another good habit to try to get your loved one or client into is writing down detailed information as soon as possible after having an important conversation with someone such as a close friend or a family member. For example, if a friend offers to go to the movies with the person and gives them their phone number to call when they’re available, they need to write down the friend’s name, phone number, that they offered to go to the movies, the date, and that they’re waiting for a return call. Once the person gets home, it’s a good idea for them to use another memory aid, such as a post-it note or jotting a note on the calendar, to remind them to take action at the appropriate time.
Emails have the tendency to pile up on all of us. This is especially problematic for people with memory challenges, as they often forget which ones they’ve replied to. One good strategy is to flag all emails that need any kind of follow-up the first time they’re read.
You can then teach the person to go through their flagged emails once a week—preferably at the same time and same day of the week each week—to make sure they’ve followed up on each of them. And, as with the to-do list, it’s important that they then delete emails once they’re done replying to them, to keep from answering the same email more than once.
Ask for a Reminder
Finally, it’s also a good strategy for people who have memory challenges to “off-load” memory tasks whenever possible.
If they’re living with a partner, family member, or socialize with friends or work colleagues regularly, they should develop the habit of asking these significant others in their lives to remind them of important tasks and upcoming events.
If these people know about your client or loved one’s memory issues, they’re often more than happy to help out.
Of course, these “memory partners” may also forget to remind them of something, such as taking a medication, so this strategy should always be used in combination with other memory aids.
The Best Memory Strategy is Multiple Memory Strategies
As you can see from all the ideas I’ve shared in this post, there are many ways to help your client or loved one to effectively navigate their days, even though they’re dealing with memory challenges.
Some of these strategies will be a great fit for their situation, while others might not work as well. But the best strategy is to combine strategies so that there’s always more than one type of reminder for each important task the person needs to accomplish.
Your role as an important support person in their life is to build in these redundancies and help them establish routines and mnemonic habits that will serve them well.