A woman in a wheelchair and her caregiver look out the window of a well-lit living room.

Not all memory loss is caused by Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Unlike Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias which cause ongoing memory loss that usually gets worse over time, short-term memory problems may also occur in older adults for a variety of reasons. In this guide, you will learn about some of the causes of short-term memory problems in seniors as well as some ways to manage present and future issues including legal considerations, potential financial concerns, living arrangements, senior care options, and more.

Signs of short-term memory problems

Short-term memory issues are exactly what they sound like, still, some important symptoms can go unnoticed. If you suspect someone in your life is experiencing short-term memory loss, look for the following:

  • Difficulty remembering familiar names
  • Difficulty following directions
  • Difficulty remembering common words
  • Misplacing items and being unable to find them
  • Changes in mood including increased irritability
  • Becoming lost in familiar places
  • Confusion

Causes of short-term memory loss

When memory issues arise, the first assumption many people make is that it’s a form of dementia. But there are many other causes of memory impairment that are unrelated to Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias:

  • Depression
  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Head injuries
  • Other disease processes (such as Parkinson’s disease)
  • Medication side effects and adverse effects
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Mental health disorders
  • Postoperative cognitive dysfunction after surgery

Although short-term memory loss is more common with memory problems, long-term memory may be affected as a result of these factors as well.

Emotional effects on seniors

Individuals who experience short-term memory loss react in a variety of ways.

Some individuals are not aware of the problem and appear to lack the insight to realize they are having memory difficulties. Other individuals become concerned when short-term memory loss becomes a more regular or reoccurring problem for them. Still, others may be in denial that they are having problems with their memory because they are embarrassed or afraid of what may be causing it.

Some individuals may blame their memory difficulties on others suggesting that others have moved objects or changed plans without informing them. Regardless of the person‘s reaction to their memory loss, all problems with memory loss should be discussed with one’s doctor as soon as possible. Sometimes something as simple as a change in medication can result in memory changes or mood changes. When a doctor is made aware of this, they can quickly address this to prevent the problem from escalating.

Effects on family members and caregivers

As one might expect, spouses and family members are understandably concerned and even worried when elderly individuals begin to show signs of short-term memory loss. And many times families wrongly assume short-term memory problems are Alzheimer’s disease since this disease has become much more well-known over the last few decades.

Family and friends will likely notice the senior:

  • Becoming argumentative
  • Forgetting common etiquette in social settings
  • Forgetting bills or making double payments
  • Frequently misplacing keys, credit cards, and other important items
  • Leaving doors unlocked or the stove on
  • Display big changes in mood

Addressing these issues with the person who has memory loss often leads to an argument as they minimize or try to rationalize what happened.

A spouse may be embarrassed in social circles with a senior experiencing memory loss, particularly if the elderly individual becomes argumentative with others regarding information they have forgotten.

Depending on the extent of a person’s short-term memory loss, they may also begin to have difficulty managing money.

If an individual drives a vehicle, they may also begin to have difficulty with this skill due to short-term memory loss. Some signs a senior can no longer drive safely include near misses, traffic violations, and minor vehicle damage that they may explain away as being someone else’s fault.

If a person with short-term memory loss begins to display unpredictable changes in mood, this may be another source of conflict. Family and friends may feel like they are “walking on eggshells” because they are unsure what might upset the senior next.

Living with both the uncertainty of why the person is behaving this way as well as the uncertainty of what may cause them to become agitated can begin to take an emotional toll on loved ones.

An important first step in addressing these issues is determining why the elderly individual is beginning to have short-term memory loss and if the cause is something as simple as a medication that the person is having a negative reaction to.

Senior care for short-term memory loss

The amount and type of assistance that a person with short-term memory loss requires will depend on the degree of their memory loss as well as what is causing their memory problems.

Individuals with mild and occasional short-term memory loss may simply need the watchful eye of a spouse or other caregiver to ensure they remain safe and to provide minimal assistance with everyday tasks as needed.

For example, seniors who have had surgery and are now experiencing some short-term memory loss due to the residual effects of the anesthetic may need more help than usual until they fully recover from surgery.

It may take several months or longer for the anesthetic to completely leave the body, particularly for older adults. One of the lingering effects of anesthesia may be short-term memory loss and confusion.

Individuals who have more pronounced short-term memory problems will need more assistance with care. Depending on their degree of memory loss, a senior may need assistance with:

  • Transportation and running errands
  • Bathing and dressing appropriately for the weather or season
  • Preparing food properly and safely in the kitchen
  • Eating enough and staying hydrated
  • Ensuring medications are taken as prescribed

Medication safety becomes an important issue for a person with short-term memory problems. A spouse or other caregiver should ensure that they are assisting with or closely watching the medications that the person with memory loss is taking. It can be easy to forget to take the medication in the amount and at the time that it is prescribed.

Pill tablet containers also called dosettes may be purchased through most pharmacies and are handy for pre-pouring pills that are required on a regular and daily basis. These containers eliminate the need to remember when a medication was last taken or when it is due again.

It is still important to watch and ensure that the individual does not take the next dose out of the container before it is due. If this becomes a problem, place only the next dose in a container where it is visible and store all other medications out of sight so they are not accidentally taken too soon.

Adult day care for short-term memory issues

If a person with short-term memory problems is not safe to be left at home alone, adult day care facilities may be a good option for a senior with memory loss and their family. Adult day care facilities provide a number of services that are beneficial for individuals with short-term memory loss including:

  • A safe environment
  • Social activities based on ability
  • Recreational opportunities based on ability
  • Nursing and medical services as required
  • Professional services, like physical therapy or occupational therapy
  • Nutritious meals and snacks
  • Assistance with personal care as needed
  • Social work support and counseling for both the individual and their family
  • Accommodation of special needs such as diabetic meals and snacks

Living arrangements for short-term memory issues

Even if an elderly individual with short-term memory loss is currently living alone, it may not be safe for the senior to continue living alone.

Once an individual has been assessed by their doctor or primary health care provider, and the probable cause of the short-term memory loss has been identified, a spouse or family will have a better idea of what living arrangements may be best for the person going forward.

For example, if an individual has some short-term memory problems due to an anesthetic from a recent surgery, an adult child may choose to have the person live with them until they fully recover from surgery and their memory improves.

If the short-term memory loss is expected to get worse or its cause is unknown, family members or loved ones may determine that the person would be best cared for in a facility that can care for individuals with memory loss. If the person with memory loss lives with a spouse, options such as home carehome health care, adult daycare, and respite care may help the person remain in their own home as long as possible.

If remaining in one’s own home or living with family members is not an option for the individual with short-term memory problems, loved ones may want to consider residential care facilities that can assist people with memory loss. These include facilities such as:

Financial concerns and short-term memory issues

A variety of financial concerns may arise when a person develops short-term memory problems. First of all, if the individual was working and then developed memory problems, they may no longer be able to work. This loss of income may be compounded by the fact that they may also need to pay for a medical assessment to determine the cause of the memory loss as well as any recommended medical treatment and assistance with personal care.

In addition to these costs, the cost of a residential care facility can be another significant ongoing expense if the senior can no longer live independently or with family.

If the individual meets the criteria for being “disabled” and they or their spouse have worked long enough, they may qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). For a person with little to no income, both Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) may provide financial assistance if eligibility requirements are met.

Some states also have Programs of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) which provide assistance to seniors with little to no income. The goal of PACE is to help seniors so they may continue to live in their own homes rather than in a long-term care facility. These programs provide financial assistance for a variety of personal and medical care needs.

Legal concerns and short-term memory issues

Once an individual has short-term memory problems, it may not be possible to have them participate in the preparation of legal documents for their personal, financial, and health care needs. This is due to the fact that a person must be legally deemed “competent” to understand the decisions they are making and be able to carry out these decisions.

Ideally, a person who is having short-term memory problems would already have a power of attorney, a living will, and a basic will already in place before their memory loss began.

Power of attorney

power of attorney is a legal document that allows an individual to appoint another person as their agent to make decisions on their behalf, usually when they are unable to do so for themselves.

Living will

living will can also be helpful when used in conjunction with a power of attorney since it can help provide more clear direction for one’s power of attorney agent when they need to make decisions on the person’s behalf.

Another important legal document for individuals with memory loss is a living will. In a living will, a person identifies what medical care and end-of-life care they would and would not like to receive in the event that they are unable to communicate these preferences when these decisions need to be made.

Basic will (or simple will)

Finally, a will (often called a “basic will” or “simple will”) is also important to have in place in the event that the individual does not recover from their short-term memory loss. A will ensures that a person’s assets and estate are distributed to the beneficiaries of their choice upon their death.

If the person with short-term memory loss does not have these documents in place and their memory loss is mild and transient, they may still be capable of preparing these documents with the assistance of legal counsel and their family. A doctor or lawyer will be able to assess the individual’s competence and determine whether or not they are able to participate in the preparation of legal documents.

Due to the requirement of competency to sign legal documents, it is important to discuss this issue with a lawyer as soon as possible if a person and their family members wish to have these or any other legal documents prepared.

Organizations that cover short-term memory loss

There are a number of organizations and nonprofits that offer support and information for those with short-term memory problems and their families including the: