Diagnosing memory problems can be confusing. In older people, it's easy to mistake such problems for the everyday forgetfulness that some people experience as they grow older.

"However, if a person's memory problems are severe and persistent and accompanied by other changes that make it difficult for him or her to cope with everyday life, the person may have Alzheimer's disease or dementia," says Daniel Kaplan, CSW, LICSW, director of social services at the Alzheimer's Foundation of America.

One should be assessed by a doctor:

  • When the person is unable to remember familiar things or people.

  • When the person is increasingly forgetful or has trouble remembering recent events.

  • When the person has trouble doing familiar things, such as cooking.

A medical exam will include a look at prescription and over-the-counter medications used, as well as diet, medical history and overall health, according to the National Institute on Aging. A memory problem may be caused by a reaction to a drug, or it might be the result of depression, thyroid problems, dehydration or a vitamin deficiency.

If you're caring for someone with memory problems, the following recommendations can help you help the person retain his or her confidence, independence and dignity for as long as possible.

  • Be flexible and patient and encourage the person to remember what he or she can.

  • Make it easier for the person to remember new information. To do so, keep new information simple and repeat it frequently. Break down new activities into small steps.

  • Provide verbal cues rather than ask questions. For example, say: "This is Jane, your cousin, who has come to see you." Don't ask: "This is Jane. Do you remember who she is?"

  • Establish a regular routine. A regular routine will help the person feel more secure and make it easier for him or her to remember what usually happens during the day. Too much variety and stimulation can be confusing.

  • Learn what to expect. For example, managing irritation may be easier if you understand your husband can't remember how to unload the dishwasher because of his disease, not because he doesn't want to be helpful.

  • Seek help from family and friends. "Taking care of someone with Alzheimer's disease requires that you take care of yourself," says Mr. Kaplan. "It's important to tap family, friends and community resources to get a much-needed break. Maintaining your own physical and emotional health is crucial in meeting the enormous challenges of caregiving."

Medical Reviewer: [Akin, Louise RN, BSN, Godsey, Cynthia M.S., M.S.N., APRN, Lambert, J.G. M.D.] Last Annual Review Date: 2008-03-30T00:00:00-06:00 Copyright: © Health Ink & Vitality Communications

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More than 5.3 million people in the United States are living with Alzheimer's disease, with a new person developing the disease every 70 seconds. Americans ages 65 and older with Alzheimer's and dementia pay three times as much in health care costs.