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How to manage memory problems after brain injury

How to manage memory problems after brain injury

Top tips to help make it easier to live with memory problems

Impairment of memory is one of the most common effects of a brain injury and can cause serious problems with day-to-day living.

While there is unfortunately no cure available, there are a number of strategies that for many people make it easier to live with memory problems and can increase independence.

If you or someone you care for is experiencing memory problems after brain injury, try these top tips to cope. Details of further information and support are available at the end of this page. 

Adapt the environment

One of the simplest ways to help with memory problems is to adapt your environment so you rely on memory less.

Some ideas for doing so which have helped others are:

  • Keeping a notepad by the phone to make a note of phone calls and messages
  • Putting essential information on a noticeboard
  • Deciding on a special place to keep important objects like keys, wallets or spectacles and always putting them back in the same place
  • Attaching important items to your person so they can’t be mislaid, for example using a neck cord for reading glasses
  • Labelling cupboards and storage vessels as a reminder of where things are kept
  • Labelling perishable food with the date it was opened
  • Painting the toilet door a distinctive colour so it is easier to find
  • Labelling doors as a reminder of which room is which

Use external memory aids

Many people use external memory aids, regardless of whether they have a brain injury or not. External memory aids are particularly important for people with memory problems as they limit the work the memory has to do.

Some examples of external memory aids you could try include:

  • Smartphones with diary or calendar applications
  • Diaries, filofaxes or datebooks
  • Notebooks
  • Lists
  • Alarm clocks
  • Watches
  • Calendars
  • Wall charts
  • Tape recorders and dictaphones
  • Electronic organisers
  • Pagers
  • Pill reminder boxes for medication
  • Sticky-backed notes
  • Photo albums
  • Cameras
woman writing in diary

Follow a set routine

Having a daily and weekly routine means that people with memory problems can get used to what to expect, which helps to reduce the demands on memory. Changes in routine are, however, often necessary, but can be confusing.

Relatives and carers can help by explaining any changes in routine carefully to help you prepare for the change, giving plenty of spoken and written reminders.

You could also try the following reminder strategies in order to establish routines:

  • Make a note of regular activities in a diary or on a calendar 
  • Make a chart of regular events, perhaps using pictures or photographs, on a noticeboard

Combine several strategies to make a substitute memory system

Most people with memory problems find it useful to combine several aids and strategies. A combination of two or three strategies can cover the areas where there would otherwise be problems and provide a safety net for things that must be remembered.

Here are examples of the components of two such ‘combination systems’ you can try:

System one:

  • Three lists – one showing routine tasks, one showing where to find files in the filing cabinet and one showing key ‘rules’, such as when to do the filing each day 
  • A ring binder with sections on ‘immediate/urgent tasks’ and ‘long-term projects’ 
  • A notebook 
  • A telephone message pad to make notes of conversations 
  • A computer calendar and alarm 
  • Practising assertiveness techniques to ‘buy time’ instead of having to respond to requests immediately. For instance, encouraging the person with the memory problems to say, “hang on, let me just find my notepad” and then taking their time with finding the relevant information in the notepad 
  • Simple relaxation and breathing techniques to reduce anxiety 

System two:

  • Filofax 
  • Journal 
  • Watch 
  • Dictaphone 
  • Various lists 
  • Sticky-backed notes 
  • Menu chart 
  • Keeping things in the same place 
  • Following routines

Improve general well-being

Memory is very important in giving us a sense of our own identity. Memory problems often have major emotional effects, including feelings of loss and anger and increased levels of depression and anxiety. Some approaches to dealing with this are as follows:

  • Share your feelings with others. People with memory problems often find that talking to people who understand their problems can provide relief and reassurance. Headway Groups and Branches can be an excellent source of support and details of how to find your local service are provided at the end of this factsheet.
  • Identify activities you find enjoyable and relaxing, such as listening to music or exercising, and take the time to indulge in them.

Find out more

Finding a strategy that suits you can be a case of trial and error, and it is important to take things slowly. You should always speak to your doctor before changing your routine, and you might like to seek a referral to a specialist such as a neuropsychologist or occupational therapist for personalised professional support.

This information is adapted from Headway's booklet Memory problems after brain injury, which you can download below or from our information library. Much of the information contained here is included in the book Coping with memory problems, and is used with kind permission from Pearson Assessment. You can purchase this book in the Headway shop.

You can contact the Headway helpline on 0808 800 2244 or to discuss any of the issues covered here, or get in touch with your local Headway group or branch.


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