How to Talk to Aging Parents About Memory Loss

Medically reviewed by Dr. Mark Hrymoc, M.D.

Talking to aging parents about memory loss requires empathy and sensitivity. Choose a comfortable setting, use clear and gentle language, and express concern without alarm. Offering support, discussing professional evaluation, and emphasizing that memory issues might be treatable can make the conversation more constructive and less intimidating.

Cognitive decline, including memory loss, affects many older adults. Some symptoms are a natural part of aging, while others signal a more serious condition. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11.1% of adults over 65 self-report that they have been experiencing a worsening of confusion and memory problems within the last twelve months. 

If you are a child of an aging parent with cognitive decline, you have likely noticed that their memory is not what it once was. You may need to talk to them about their memory loss but aren’t sure what to say or how to say it. You are not alone. Out of the millions diagnosed with memory-related illnesses, just as many family members are trying to figure out how to help them.

In this article, you will discover how to talk to aging parents about memory loss.

How to Talk to Aging Parents About Memory Loss

Talking with aging parents about memory loss is a delicate and vital conversation that requires careful planning and empathy. It’s essential to choose a quiet, comfortable setting and a time when you won’t be rushed, to allow for an open and honest discussion.

Approaching the subject with compassion, clear observations, and reassurance can help alleviate fear or defensiveness. Offering to accompany them to a healthcare provider or providing information about memory loss can be supportive next steps. Though this conversation may be challenging, it’s a crucial step in addressing potential memory issues and ensuring that the proper care and resources are sought.

Here are a few things that will help you understand how to talk to aging parents about memory loss.

Understand Your Parents’ Memory Loss

Memory loss can happen to anyone, especially if they have a stressful work or home life. It is normal to forget where you put your keys occasionally, miss a bill payment, or struggle to remember a specific word or detail. As a person ages, the number of forgetful moments may increase.

Mild cognitive impairment goes beyond normal memory loss due to aging. If your parent has more memory problems than others their age, it could be a sign of impairment. Examples include, if they lose things often, forget important dates and events, or struggle to find the right words to say in a conversation.

Memory loss that may signal a serious problem includes making bad decisions often, struggling to have conversations, forgetting to pay bills often, asking the same questions repeatedly, getting lost, and becoming more confused.

If you think your parent’s memory loss exceeds what is normal aging, create a plan for talking to them.

Learn the Causes of Memory Loss

Aging is just one possible cause of memory loss. Many reversible causes of memory loss may be mistaken for more serious issues. Your parents may be experiencing problems for reasons unrelated to their age, like the following:

  • Minor head trauma
  • Alcohol or drug misuse
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Lack of sleep
  • Thyroid disease
  • Grief

Additional causes can be due to bacterial infections, stroke, and epilepsy. Mental health disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress, and anxiety have symptoms of memory loss and confusion for some people.

Medication side effects are another reason for memory loss and cognitive impairment. Sleeping pills, prescription and over-the-counter medications can cause trouble concentrating, focusing, forming thoughts, and remembering. Medications like opioids and tricyclic antidepressants cause confusion and memory issues, and an overall slowing of brain function. Other drugs that can cause memory issues include some antihistamines and antacids. 

Create a Plan

It can be difficult for any parent to hear they have a problem from their own child. You must prepare for your talk in advance. Who will be there? When will you talk? Where will you meet? What will you say? Answers to these questions should focus on helping your parents, not you. Meet where your parents are comfortable and with people that make them feel safe. 

If you approach your parents in an accusatory, hostile manner, nothing will get resolved. Be patient, loving, and warm. Treat them like adults and avoid speaking down to them. Express your feelings, not your findings, and use appropriate language they can understand.

Meet With a Specialist

If your parent is experiencing memory loss, it is a good idea for them to be evaluated by a medical practitioner. Allow your parent to choose the specialist, so they know they are still in control of their lives. Examples of specialists include geriatricians, neurologists, diagnostic centers, and neuropsychologists.

Many prefer seeing a geriatric psychiatrist since memory loss may indicate other mental illnesses. Also, they work closely with therapists who specialize in working with older adults. They offer coping mechanisms for your parents and you to deal with the changes associated with normal aging, dementia, or Alzheimer’s. They may find your parent can benefit from medications that slow memory loss.

Establishing a team of medical and mental health professionals who can work together in treating your parents is the best solution.

Get Help From a Counselor

As a child, you may feel obligated to be the one who talks to your parents about their memory loss. However, you do not have to do it alone. Watching your parents change can lead to emotional ups and downs. You must have the support you need. Working with mental health professionals offers enormous benefits, including maintaining positive mental health during challenging times. Also, they can help you create your plan for talking to your parents.

You may decide that family therapy is where you discuss memory loss with your parents. Your therapist can facilitate healthy conversations, set goals, and offer advice on where to go for further assistance, like a specialist in cognitive health.

Some techniques that assess and address memory loss include the following:

  • Neuropsychological testing
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Cognitive stimulation therapy
  • Life story work
  • Trauma-focused therapies

Final Tips for Talking to an Aging Parent

When talking to your aging parent, especially about memory loss, avoid diagnosing them with a disease, making them fearful. Don’t get frustrated if they are in denial or argue with your opinion. Rather than correct them or force them to stay on track with the conversation if they tend to jump topics, let them speak and really listen to what they are saying. Never embarrass or make them feel it is their fault they have memory loss.

Talking to your parents about memory loss may take more than one conversation. Each meeting should be planned and coordinated with those who love your parents as much as you do. Finally, help your parents contact a local mental health center to gather information on scheduling an evaluation, treatments, support, and resources for your whole family.