Caring for Loved Ones with Alzheimer’s Disease
By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., ACCESS Media Relations Specialist
November 14, 2017
In 1983, when President Ronald Reagan designated November as National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, fewer than two million Americans had Alzheimer’s. Today, the number of people with the disease has soared to nearly 5.4 million. Every 66 seconds someone in the United States develops the disease.
What is Alzheimer’s disease, exactly? Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, a general term for memory loss and other cognitive abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer's disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases. Alzheimer's is a progressive disease, where dementia symptoms gradually worsen over a number of years. In its early stages, memory loss is mild, but with late-stage Alzheimer's, individuals lose the ability to carry on a conversation and respond to their environment, needing constant care and supervision.
While Alzheimer’s takes a devastating toll on the patients themselves, life can be challenging for the caregivers. Thirty-five percent of caregivers for people with Alzheimer’s report their own health has gotten worse due to care responsibilities, and they also report substantial emotional, financial and physical difficulties. Yet, it’s estimated that 15 million Americans provide unpaid care for people with the disease or other dementias.
At ACCESS, we understand how difficult it can be to care for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. Experts advise that there are several things you can do to provide the best care for the patient, while also limiting your own challenges and frustrations as well:
- Schedule wisely. Establish a regular routine to make each day less agitating and confusing. Schedule tasks, such as bathing or medical appointments when the person is most alert and refreshed.
- Take your time. Expect things to take longer than they used to. Allow the person with Alzheimer's disease to have frequent breaks.
- Involve the person. Allow your loved one to do as much as possible with the least amount of assistance. For example, people with Alzheimer's disease might be able to set the table with the help of visual cues or dress independently if you lay out clothes in the order they go on.
- Provide choices. Fewer options are better but give the person with Alzheimer's disease choices every day. For example, provide two outfits to choose from, or ask if he or she prefers a hot or cold beverage.
- Reduce distractions. Turn off the TV and minimize other distractions at mealtime and during conversations to make it easier for the person with Alzheimer's disease to focus. Do not use confusing pronouns, such as he, she or it, but rather names and specific titles.
- Set realistic and attainable goals. Often, caregivers try to do everything and end up exhausted and frustrated. Perhaps your goal is to be sure that your patient is clean, comfortable and well fed. By accepting success at 80 percent, for example, it will allow you to enjoy time you might have otherwise spent fretting about not reaching your goals.
- Remember that all behavior has a purpose. Many experts believe that some of the behavioral symptoms that people with Alzheimer’s exhibit, such as shouting or striking out, are meant to communicate a need that is not being met. Slowing down, trying to see the world through their eyes and trying to respond to the ‘feeling’ behind the behavior, rather than the behavior itself, may prevent an emotional crisis.
- Enjoy the good times. Many people with Alzheimer’s remain physically fit and retain their ability to be comfortable and involved in social situations quite late in the disease. Therefore, continue to socialize, travel, be physically active and participate in activities that are enjoyable to both you and your loved one. However, trying to learn new tasks or starting new hobbies may be frustrating or overwhelming.
- Reminisce about the past and encourage discussions about people and places that are familiar and evoke pleasant feelings for both you and your loved one. Memories from the distant past are not usually affected and watching family videos, looking at photographs or reviewing travels from the past can allow you to share experiences and feelings.
- Be flexible. Remember that Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease. Your loved one's symptoms and needs will change over time. A successful intervention at one stage may not work at a later stage.
No matter what stage of Alzheimer’s your loved one is experiencing, please remember that you cannot be at your best if you do not take care of yourself. Please contact ACCESS, and we can help you locate support groups, doctors, etc. that can give you the added support you need.