Coping strategies for memory loss

The Bottom Line

  • Many people experience normal memory loss as they age. However, it is estimated that 5-8% of Canadians over the age of 60 will have a neurocognitive disorder during their lifetime, which could represent 2 million Canadians by 2050.
  • Older adults with and without cognitive impairment use a variety of strategies to compensate for memory loss and live independently for as long as possible. These strategies can be internal, external or behavioural.
  • Notes, calendars and lists are the most commonly used external memory aids.

Who hasn't had a memory lapse while trying to remember someone's name? Who has never looked for their keys in all the rooms of the house? While small daily oversights are not very serious and can happen to anyone, memory loss due to cognitive decline or a neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer's or dementia is a challenge for many older adults. Indeed, the deterioration of memory has a direct effect on the ability to perform activities of daily living and to remain independent.

A previous review investigated the general coping strategies of people with dementia and showed that they develop emotional and behavioural strategies to manage their symptoms.(1) However, no specific focus was placed on the strategies for performing activities of daily living. How do older adults cope with their memory loss on a daily basis?

What research tells us

A systematic review identified 16 articles that focused specifically on memory problems experienced by non-institutionalized adults aged 60 and over and their coping strategies for carrying out activities of daily living.(2) Certain disorders associated with cognitive decline were excluded, including schizophrenia, drug-induced memory problems, stroke, and Parkinson's disease. In addition, tools such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality and assistance robots have also been excluded from possible strategies.

The review revealed that older adults, whether cognitively impaired or not, use three types of strategies to cope with memory loss:

1. External strategies

To avoid oversights, many older adults write down the steps required to complete a task, use a pill organizer or write birthdays and appointments in a calendar. Some can create the content for reminders themselves, while others, like those with dementia, may require help. These strategies work well, until the decline gets worse and people have difficulty understanding a schedule or re-reading their notes. Another strategy is to integrate visual cues into the home environment to help retain information and reduce the risk of misplacing everyday objects: for example, maintaining an orderly and uncluttered home environment, visually identifying specific places where each item is stored, etc.

2. Internal strategies

Active memorization, visualization or verbalization (repeating aloud, for example) allow you to keep in mind what you do not want to forget. People with dementia can use these strategies to retrieve a memory or perform a daily task.

3. Behavioural strategies

People with cognitive impairment may also adopt behavioural strategies to compensate for memory loss. They may lower their expectations when performing tasks, accept help and support from loved ones, or adapt their actions to their capacities. Unfortunately, this can lead some older adults with memory problems to withdraw from social activities and avoid certain places and situations. Obviously, not everyone reacts the same way: some people may have different coping approaches and may still engage in social activities despite their memory problems.

Can we improve our memory?

Do you have trouble remembering the names of your grandchildren? Do you forget to pay your bills or go to your medical appointments? You no longer remember the steps to cook your favorite recipe? If you notice signs of cognitive decline in you or your loved ones, the first thing to do is to meet with your health professional to determine the cause of your memory loss and possible treatments.

In addition, it is recognized that the modification of the diet, the practice of physical and social activities, as well as cognitive stimulation make it possible to stabilize or even improve cognitive functions. Learning a new language or a musical instrument, singing, painting or gardening are all activities that help preserve well-being and cognitive capacities! Don't isolate yourself: participate in the social life of your community, join groups of older adults, work on your memory and enjoy your crosswords, sudokus and other brain games!

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Author Details


  1. Bjørkløf GH, Helvik AS, Ibsen TL, Telenius EW, Grov EK, Eriksen S. Balancing the struggle to live with dementia: A systematic meta-synthesis of coping. BMC Geriatriacs. 2019;19(1):295.
  2. Ross SD, Hofbauer LM, Rodriguez FS. Coping strategies for memory problems in everyday life of people with cognitive impairment and older adults: A systematic review. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. 2022 May;37(5). doi: 10.1002/gps.5701. PMID: 35362220.

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.