US Dementia Expert Sets the Challenge to Forget About ‘Memory Loss’

on the Monday, September 11, 2017

A neuropsychologist and international dementia expert is challenging our use of the term memory loss and how our beliefs about memory problems can affect people living with dementia, especially those with Alzheimer’s disease.

Steven Sabat Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Georgetown University, USA, is calling on carers, health professionals and the community to stop using the phrase ‘memory loss’ as a defining experience of people living with dementia because people with a diagnosis can still make new memories and learn new things.

“It is really memory dysfunction rather than loss and therefore what we do around people living dementia, how we treat them, can enable them to function, can support them and build, rather than erode, their confidence,” Prof Sabat said.

Delivering a speaking tour for Alzheimer’s Australia as part of Dementia Awareness Month, Prof Sabat said supporting someone’s self-respect is more important than his or her ability to recall today’s date, especially when asked that question, “out of the blue”.

“The tendency to ask a person, “What did you have for breakfast?”, or “What day of the week is today?” is unhelpful to people diagnosed because one is asking the person to recall information and recall is the exact method of retrieval from memory that is the person’s greatest problem,” Prof Sabat said.

“Our tone of voice or the way we ask a question can create anxiety for the person diagnosed and lead to that person not wanting to interact with us.”

Prof Sabat said it is important to erase negative stereotypes about people with dementia and create an environment and a community in which people living with dementia are enabled to use their intact strengths while being supported and empowered to take control of their lives.

 “We need to change the way we think about memory loss by realising that recalling is not the same as remembering – because there are other ways, aside from recalling, to remember,” Prof Sabat said. 

“If we assume someone is experiencing something called memory loss then we may well be assuming incorrectly that they cannot make new memories and assume that they cannot be affected by what happens to them in the here and now.

“Memory dysfunction is a defining symptom of dementia but how we treat people living with dementia can disempower their ability to remain engaged and involved in their day to day lives and activities.”

“The way we respond as a community can leave people with dementia and their carers feeling socially embarrassed and uncomfortable,” Maree McCabe, National CEO Alzheimer’s Australia said.

“But small actions can make a big difference.

 “If a person encounters challenges in their everyday activities they are naturally more likely to withdraw socially and become less engaged with their friends, family and their community.

“A diagnosis of dementia does not define a person. As a community, we have the opportunity to support people with dementia by increasing our understanding of the disease and the experience of the person living with dementia.”

Throughout September, Dementia Awareness Month is shaped around the theme You Are Not Alone. Alzheimer’s Australia is calling on all Australians to reach out to people impacted by dementia in their community to let them know they are not alone and to find out more about how they can support them.

There are an estimated 413,000 people living with dementia in Australia and around 1.2 million people involved in the care of someone with dementia. Without a significant medical breakthrough, the number of people with dementia is expected to grow to more than half a million people by 2025 and 1.1 million people by 2056. 

For more information and support call the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500 or go to our website www.fightdementia.org.au. Dementia Awareness Month 2017 is supported by financial assistance from the Australian Government. 

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