Forgetfulness: What is Normal?

by Pam Leonard, LBSW, CDP

In our monthly support group for family caregivers, it’s not uncommon for someone who’s caring for a loved one with dementia to voice concerns about their own memory. “I pick up the phone and don’t remember who I was going to call. I walk into the other room, then can’t remember why I went there,” they’ll say. “Are these the early signs of dementia?”

Perhaps you’ve had the same concerns. You may be relieved to hear that memory impairment can be a normal part of aging --- but how do we tell the difference between “normal” forgetfulness and serious brain diseases like Alzheimer’s?

Normal age-related forgetfulness is when we occasionally misplace items such as glasses, keys, and the remote control. We also may become easily distracted in the middle of performing a task or telling a story. It is also common to forget an appointment or mix up an acquaintance’s name.

In contrast, the symptoms of dementia go beyond memory loss, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Signs of dementia may include trouble communicating, focusing, reasoning and completing tasks. Examples may include:

  • Inability to solve problems- Working with numbers, such as taking care of monthly bills, becomes more difficult.
  • Issues completing everyday tasks- Driving, playing a game or working - tasks that used to come second nature - seem impossible.
  • Feeling confused about time or location- Someone loses track of time and becomes confused about where he or she is, in places like the grocery store or at the park.
  • Inability to engage in conversation- Dementia may cause someone to have trouble engaging in spoken or written conversation.
  • Poor judgment - Affected individuals may make faulty decisions, such as leaving home without a jacket on a frigid day.
  • Change in personality- If someone seems more fearful, anxious, depressed or suspicious than usual, it may be a sign of dementia.

If you’re struggling with increased forgetfulness, the normal aging process may play a role, but stress can also be a factor. At Sweden’s Sahlgrenska University Hospital, researchers have found that severe stress is causing a growing number of people to seek help for self-perceived memory problems. In addition, the researchers found that lack of sleep can affect or impair our ability to focus and remember.

If stress can lead to “normal” memory problems, then it’s not surprising that caregivers are sometimes forgetful. It is not “selfish” to take time to manage your own stress. It is restorative to nourish yourself by doing something you enjoy; exercising, being in nature or having coffee with a friend. Reducing your stress may help you focus and stay on task – a benefit to both your loved one and yourself.

Pam Leonard, LBSW, CDP, is Program Director of the CJFS CARES respite program, which provides four hours per day of cognitive, social and physical engagement for those affected by dementia and related disorders. Pam is also a facilitator of CJFS’ monthly caregiver support group. To learn more about CARES and caregiver support, contact or 205.960.3411.