WHEN you feel as though your memory has suddenly become faulty, that you can’t remember details and names the way you used to or what you did yesterday, the first thoughts that come to mind may be the dreaded: “Am I losing my memory?” or “Is this the onset of Alzheimer’s disease?”
That’s what happened to me after a few intense years of taking care of both my parents until they passed away.
They weren’t the only ones in our care. We lost four people we loved dearly in a space of two years — my parents, sister-in-law and brother-in-law.
My parents suffered illness due to ageing. Mum was unwell, went for haemodialysis three times a week, succumbed to diabetic coma and was unconscious for nearly two months. She recovered but was weakened by her illness. My sister-in-law and brother-in-law both battled cancer but were defeated by it.
The number of hospitalisations and trips to the emergency room, treatments and rehabilitation just filled our days and nights. Coordinating who’s doing what for whom over the years was an art form worthy of management gurus.
During that time, my eldest son, who is physically and mentally challenged, also needed attention and required corrective surgery to his foot so that he could continue to walk and be mobile. Many physical therapy sessions were scheduled for his full rehabilitation.
There didn’t seem to be enough time in a day for us to do everything. Despite organising our schedules and delegating tasks that made the load easier for everyone, we were all worn out.
There were days when I was just exhausted to the point of forgetfulness if I didn’t write them down. I always carried a notebook with me to pen down not just the day’s journal but also my “to do” list as well as appointments.
Short-term memory loss became more frequent. I was worried. I was very familiar with people who suffered from dementia and Alzheimer’s.
I had relatives, friends and parents of friends who suffered from dementia and Alzheimer’s. My late mother suffered from a mild form of dementia after she recovered from her diabetic coma.
I promptly contacted the doctors on my list. They were my parents’ doctors and they helped me figure out my situation. Even in their disbelief that I may be suffering from some form of dementia, they didn’t turn me away.
The first culprit for this is stress, which causes you to feel overwhelmed. It can give you frequent panic attacks too when you feel that you’re losing control. Stress also raises your cortisol (a hormone released when you’re stressed) level, and too much of this can interfere with your ability to digest new information and recall it later.
When you’re a caregiver who has to deal with many emergencies, sleep becomes a luxury. Even though you’re dead tired, you can’t sleep. Your mind can’t rest and won’t keep quiet because you’re worried. You fear for the worst and get jittery every time the phone rings, especially in the middle of the night.
Not getting enough sleep, or good quality sleep, can make your mind feel really foggy. It affects your mood and your ability to focus on what you’re doing. You get grumpy and lethargic. Your mood in turn leads you to feeling distracted, depressed or both when you’re tired. This also affects your memory.
Over time, lack of sleep can cause you to feel as though nothing is going right for you. You get into a vicious cycle that you must break. Lack of sleep will also wear down your immune system. You’d catch flu, cough and cold more easily. That disqualifies you from hospital duty while you recuperate.
You won’t be able to be near your ailing loved one for fear that you’d pass on the bug to them. If you are anything like me, this wouldn’t sit well with you at all. Many studies have proven how lack of sleep interferes with the way your brain stores your memory when you sleep at night.
A few other factors can affect your ability to process and retain information. Medical issues and certain medications can interfere with your memory and attention. If you notice this about yourself or the loved one in your care, discuss it with your doctor. It’s worth a review.
Sometimes you may need to be monitored for a while and all would be well again. Sometimes there are medical conditions that could affect your memory that are treatable with the right diagnosis, medications and lifestyle changes.
Lifestyle changes almost always means getting enough sleep and re-setting your circadian cycle, adjusting your diet by eating healthy and getting exercise to boost your circulation and general health.
If you feel as though you’re “losing it”, seek help as early as possible. Don’t wait. It doesn’t always get better on its own.
Putri Juneita Johari volunteers for the Special Children Society of Ampang. She can be reached at [email protected].