The difference between lapses in memory and dementia


There are lots of reasons that people can have lapses in their memory, stress overload and infection are two possibilities.  We also all lose a little bit of memory over time, there is a slowing down of all body functions over time, which is a normal part of aging, we just get a bit slower.  None of these are dementia though.


We often have busy lives and when another stress is added this can become a bit too much and we do that thing when we go into the kitchen, but can’t remember what we went there for.  All we need to do is stop, take a moment, re-trace our steps and we can usually remember what we wanted.  If we have an infection and feel poorly, we can rest and recover or take antibiotics, whatever is the right medical choice for the kind of illness and then we can feel better and our abilities return and we can remember things and function normally again.


The true forgetting that comes with dementia happens when that part of the brain that deals with that memory or function has been permanently damaged.  The brain will try to adapt, if that is possible, which might then present as a memory, but slightly changed.  I have had a client, who when offered cheese or chicken sandwich for lunch, forgot the word for chicken, but was able to say “bird”, the word for chicken had gone.  As time progress progresses these abilities to adapt will reduce and the memories are gone.  This is true forgetting.  There is no recovery of these memories.


Whilst the memories are going, there can be some support to help them, with reminiscing over old photos, which can at times be a prompt to help remember.  Other useful prompts can be smell or music, so cooking something that fills the kitchen with a well-remembered smell of the dish or perfumes can trigger memories, if a particular perfume is associated with a person or place.  Music can also activate seemingly lost memories and on numerous occasions I have heard of times when people are at quite an advance stage of dementia and losing their “spark” and in particular really struggling with language, often not speaking at all and then when they go to an event such as a church service and hear hymns or a singing event, their language returns and they can sing along to the music being played.  They also for a period recover a bit of their “spark” and the music has brought them joy an happiness and stimulated them again.


Even when memories and be supported, nevertheless this is still the operation of true forgetting, as the brain is increasingly damaged and those memories are lost.  The memories are not just of events from the past, but memories around how to wash or prepare food and during the losing of those memories, people might still be able to make a cup of tea for example, but will put the milk in the cupboard and the cup in the fridge, as they need to be put away, but where is unclear.  As time and brain damage progresses, the true forgetting will become apparent.


Supporting a loved one through this journey is frustration, hurtful, sad and distressing.  It can also be very personal and a privilege at times filled with joy and love.  And losing the person slowly over times is emotionally hard, often for both parties.


If you know a carer, be kind and compassionate with them, even if they don’t show it, it is a tough role to fulfil.  And you if are a carer, be kind to yourself, you are doing an amazing job.