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Aging: Changes in Cognitive Ability

Supporting people with an intellectual disability through the “Normal” Aging Process


Aging Persons with an intellectual disability will:

  • Likely affect the daily rhythms of our homes and the community as a whole.
  • Push us to focus even more on building upon, reinforcing and developing their strengths so that their quality of life is enhanced.
  • Have frequent changes in support and residential location and their health records are often inadequate. Consequently, it may take some time to piece together an accurate picture of the individual’s health status.
  • Challenge us to find creative ways for people to continue to do the things they like to do and to continue to have a role in the home.

Other Considerations:

  • Aging takes place earlier with individuals who are intellectually disabled than the general population.
  • In the 21st century, the life expectancy has increased to 66.1 years of age.
  • Individuals who are intellectually disabled account for 3% of older adults.
  • Health needs change as they individual gets older.

Cognitive Ability

Changes in the cognitive ability expected as the person ages:

  • Don’t lose overall ability to learn new things but there are changes in the learning process.
  • Harder to memorize lists of names and words than for a younger person.
  • Sensory and motor changes as well as cognitive ability may affect ability to respond – hard to know which is which.
  • Increased risk for dementia – approximately 56% to 67% of the population will be affected after the age of 60.

Strategies for supporting people with changes in cognitive ability:

  • Learning new information may take longer for an older person and they may need cues to help to retrieve information stored in memory.
  • When given a choice of answers it may be easier for the person to give correct answer rather that retrieving directly from memory.
  • Monitor for signs and symptoms of dementia which include but are not limited to:
    • Behavioral changes.
    • Difficulty performing familiar tasks.
    • Mood swings.
    • Decline in level of functioning.


  • Not every person will experience all of these changes.
  • Organizations concerned with a particular syndrome or condition may be helpful in providing information helpful for certain individuals.
  • Aging is a spiritual and psychological journey as well as a physical one.

Don’t Forget

  • If we believe that people can continue to grow and to share their gifts as they age we will support them to do so.

Information is compiled from the following:

  • McCracken Intervention Matrix –McCracken -College of Nursing and Health, University of Cincinnati and Lotteman Children, Inc. Covington, KY
  • A Focus on Geriatrics Sharing the Learning St Vincent Hospitals part of Providence Health Care
  • Age Changes and what to do about it Phyllis Kultgen and Peggy Hotz
  • Management Guidelines Development Disability Version 2, 2005.

Original material compiled by Jane Powell of L’Arche Ontario
Adapted with permission from

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