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Unexpected Signs of memory loss

It's not what it looks like...

As caregivers and concerned family members, we want to make sure our elder loved ones are healthy both physically and mentally. Memory loss is very common amongst older adults, but not a ‘normal’ part of the aging process. We want to identify memory loss early so it can be treated effectively, and in some cases, reversed.

We tend to look for the obvious. Are they forgetting names? Are they forgetting directions? Are they remembering to call? All of this is certainly memory loss, but  you’d be surprised to know that memory loss can reveal itself very early in the least obvious ways. That said, let’s walk through some less-obvious early signs of memory loss so we can make sure our elderly loved ones are living happily and healthily.



Sometimes, memory loss can show itself through “awkward” social behavior. This is especially true if this behavior is noticeably different from how you’ve known your elder loved one to behave. These signs can include…


Inability to detect sarcasm

Those experiencing memory loss can often lose their ability to detect sarcasm. The same jokes that used to land with your elderly loved one might begin to go right over their head. They’ll be unusually gullible and will take sarcastic comments as literal statements.


Using hurtful words

If you’ve always known your loved one to be kind and sweet, or at least hold back hurtful opinions, you might be surprised to find them saying hurtful things about you and others. Before you get angry, know that these hurtful statements might be out of their control. They could be exhibiting early signs of memory loss.



Prolonged staring might be a sign that memory loss is on the way for the elders in your life. Even mid conversation, they might begin to stare at you, others, or objects for uncomfortable periods of time. Eye movement might also become irregular, causing them to lose focus or skip lines while reading.


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If your loved one is in the early stages of memory loss, you might begin to notice strange changes in behavior. Some can be completely benign, some can be harmful, but all of these signs could mean that memory loss is on the way. These signs can include…


and loneliness

What’s happening? 

This is the most painful stage of grief in older adults. This stage will often occur 2-4 weeks after the event as the reality of the loss sets in. As your loved one comes to terms with their situation, they might see regular problems in their life in a new light. Issues that used to be routine or small will be amplified. For example, someone who has struggled with high cholesterol for years without major complaints might make their high cholesterol into an existential and insurmountable issue without reason. They might also begin to find ways to fill the void that loss and grief have created. “Filling the void” can be done in both constructive and destructive ways. 

What can you do? 

In this stage, remind your loved one of the natural networks of support they have in their community. This can be things like friends, family, church gatherings, or VA meetings that give them a sense of support. If your loved one has a history of substance abuse, this is the time to watch for that behavior. In the stage of loss and loneliness, it is common for those with substance abuse issues to relapse and “fill the void” with drugs and alcohol.  



If your loved one is in the early stages of memory loss, you might begin to notice strange changes in behavior. Some can be completely benign, some can be harmful, but all of these signs could mean that memory loss is on the way. These signs can include…

risk mitigation



Changes in Handwriting

You might be shocked to find your regular letters and cards from grandma seem like they’ve been written by somebody else. One little known sign of memory loss is a change in handwriting. These changes normally take the form of smaller handwriting, or look as if the letters and words are closely bunched together, but a change in something so deeply practiced and repeated can certainly be considered a red flag. Maybe Grandma just wants to change things up, but pay close attention if you notice a change in handwriting.


Compulsive Behavior

We know our elders can be set in their ways, but an unusual and obsessive adherence to certain behaviors can be a warning sign to watch out for. Your loved one might do things like obsessively locking doors. They might insist on buying a can of green beans every time they go to the store despite already having a cupboard full of them. The list goes on, but watch out for compulsive behavior if you’re worried about memory loss.


Strange Eating Habits

If you know your elderly loved one well, you likely know how they eat. When looking for signs of memory loss, you’ll want to look out for unusual eating habits. This can include a new and excessive taste that they’ve never had before, maybe for sweets. They might also make a habit of eating spoiled or rotten food from the fridge. Obviously, this early sign of memory loss can have some damaging physical effects as well.

Candace Williams, LCSW, ASW-G, FDC, CMS, FDC, MCPM

Candace Williams, LCSW, ASW-G, FDC, CMS, FDC, MCPM

Candace Williams is the Director of Clinician Development for WellQor, the nation's leading provider of behavioral health services for Seniors. Candace received her MSW from Columbia University, and has spent over 20 years in the field developing unique interventions to better the lives of her clients. Throughout her time in the field, Candace has worked as a certified geriatric social worker, certified mediator, crisis management specialist, and family development specialist.

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